The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, issued the order late last month, according to ministry documents, U.S. officials and several of the women. It affects all officers who have earned the title "policewoman" by graduating from the police academy. It does not apply to men in the same type of jobs.
Critics say the move is the latest sign of the religious and cultural conservatism that has taken hold in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster ushered in a government dominated by Shiite Muslims. Now, that tendency is hampering efforts to bring stability to Iraq by driving women from the force, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who has led the effort to recruit female officers.
"We nursed it along," he said last week, referring to the recruiting effort. "We saw this as: 'If we could get 50% of the brain power in this country that is not being utilized engaged, how much further along would we be?' "
Without policewomen, Phillips said, there will be no officers to give pat-down searches to female suspects, even though women have joined the ranks of suicide bombers in Iraq. Last week, a female bomber killed at least 16 people north of Baghdad, at least the fifth such attack in Iraq this year.
Another U.S. advisor noted that forcing out female officers will hamper investigation of crimes such as rape, which stigmatizes women in Iraq, because few victims feel comfortable reporting it to policemen.
Policewomen say the decree also will leave them unable to protect themselves at work or off duty. Scores of police employees, both officers and administrative workers, have been killed by insurgents. Men and women have traditionally been allowed to carry their Glock pistols with them after hours for security.
"We are considered policewomen. We face kidnapping. We could be assassinated. If anyone knew where we worked, of course they would try to do something to us," said a 27-year-old interviewed Sunday.
"How can I be a policewoman without a weapon?" she asked incredulously as three female colleagues nodded in agreement.
They, and Phillips, said the pistol recall was the latest in a series of moves that has limited most policewomen to desk jobs. The few who have worked on the streets have been reassigned to administrative tasks.
Iraqi law still prevents policewomen from advancing to commanding-officer levels. Phillips said women have complained to him about limited opportunities and harassment by male colleagues.
U.S. trainers began recruiting women in early 2004 and were so swamped with applicants that they had to turn many away. By the end of that year, about 1,000 women had graduated. Since U.S. authorities handed over responsibility for police recruitment and training to Iraqi authorities in February 2006, Phillips said, the number of female recruits has dropped to virtually zero.
A handful of policewomen are working in western Al Anbar province after graduating from the academy in October, but Phillips said they were recruited, trained and paid with U.S. funds under a program not recognized by the Iraqi government.
"When we stop paying, they stop getting paid," Phillips said.
Phillips, who works closely with Interior Ministry officials, said he got wind of the latest move to rein in female officers last month. When he questioned the plan, Phillips said, he was told by one ministry official: "Females are taken care of by men in this country. They are not out there being police officers."
The ministry has been "whittling away step by step" at the initiative launched by U.S. troops in late 2003, Phillips said.
Attempts to get a ministry official to explain the weapons order were unsuccessful. The official spokesman did not respond to telephone messages.
The order suggests that the weapons are being confiscated because some women had quit the force and absconded with their guns. However, the four policewomen interviewed said all female employees should not be punished because a few stole their weapons. They added that policemen have stolen guns and sold them but have not been stripped of their weapons en masse.
Men who hold office jobs at the ministry are being allowed to keep their weapons, the women added.
The wording of the order also suggests that weapons are needed to outfit new male recruits. Phillips said that was not the case.
There are more than 8,600 Glock pistols, the standard police-issued sidearm, in the main weapons warehouse in Baghdad, he said. An additional 120,000 are due to arrive in the coming months, he said.
The impact of the growing religious influence on Iraqi women has manifested itself in other ways as well. In the southern city of Basra, police say religious militants this year have killed dozens of women who did not cover their hair or dress modestly. In Baghdad, once a secular metropolis, it is rare to see women without scarves covering their hair. Women's activists say the new constitution clears the way for Islamic rule by guaranteeing individuals the right to decide domestic and family issues according to religious traditions.
The U.S. attempt to recruit female police officers faced hurdles from the start. Phillips said that although hundreds of women have gone through the police academy and performed as well as, if not better than, men, few have been given assignments outside the office.
Even so, the policewomen interviewed said they had held out hope that eventually they would gain a genuine role in fighting crime.
"We know there are policewomen in other countries," said one 30-year-old woman, wearing a long black abaya and a pale pink head scarf. She said she became a policewoman after her husband, who had been a police captain, was killed. It was, she said, "a sign of love" for him. It also was a way to support her three children.
For a few months, she said, she was a member of the "rescue police" squad, on the streets in uniform, mainly frisking women at checkpoints. But in April, she and another woman said, they were among dozens of female police reassigned to office jobs. "Now, we are not so happy," said the woman, who, like her colleagues, requested anonymity.
A young woman seated beside her, in trendy brown suede boots and an embroidered skirt, said joining the police force "was a new opportunity" for women to earn good salaries and break out of traditional roles. "For three years I've done my best, but unfortunately, they have not appreciated our efforts," she said.
One colleague, a 37-year-old widow rearing three daughters in the capital's Sadr City area, said she considered her weapon "like a brother to me. I have to keep it with me."
For her and other Iraqi women, police work was seen as a chance to break away from the limited options left for many Iraqis after the war, and to make decent money. The women interviewed said they earn between $600 and $700 a month, about twice what most Iraqi civil servantsmake.
Despite the ministry order, the women said they would not hand in their weapons. If their pay is withheld at the end of the month, they plan to stage a protest.
They added that they were counting on U.S. authorities to back them up and force the ministry to back off.
Phillips, though, said U.S. officials have limited options.
"It's a sovereign nation. We turned over the running of their own police force to them," he said. "We don't have a veto."