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'GI Janes' train to protect Iraq

By Diana Magnay, CNN
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Iraq's G.I. Janes
  • A increasing number of Iraqi women are joining the army
  • The women are being used to help track down female suicide bombers
  • The number of female suicide bombers in 2008 more than tripled
  • Iraq War
  • Baghdad
  • Al Qaeda in Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- Fingers painted with nail polish gripped a rifle. Women wearing lipstick, mascara and camouflage uniforms stood at attention.

A new breed of soldier is training in Iraq. These women, donning military hats over head scarves, are Baghdad's "GI Janes."

If the new recruits pass training, they will join just 66 other women now serving in Iraq's army, military officials said.

This group, at an Iraqi army facility in Baghdad this week, is the third class of women to train since the program started in summer 2009.

Iraqi army General Samir Mehdi said he expects his recruits to be confident with a gun and to understand the basics of combat in 45 days.

"A lot of them will work in administrative jobs, but a number of them will be searching women at checkpoints," Mehdi said.

That could be dangerous work. In 2008, the number of female suicide bombers spiked when extremists realized suicide vests could easily be hidden under women's flowing robes. The number of female suicide bombers more than tripled in 2008 -- to more than 24 -- compared with 2007, according to a CNN tally.

Just Monday, at least 41 people were killed and 106 others wounded by a female suicide bomber in northeastern Baghdad.

Most of the trainees said the risks don't concern them, as long as their paychecks put food on the table.

Um Omar, one of the recruits, said her husband and only son had been killed and she had found it hard to support her family.

"It used to be my son and three daughters," she said. "And now also my mother who's elderly and needs support, too. My husband is a martyr and then I lost my son to the bombings, and so I have to support my family somehow."

Though the women marched, drilled and learned the basics of handling a gun, they asked that a news crew obscure their faces on television and otherwise not reveal their identities.

U.S military officials are pleased with the recruiting trend.

"The goal down the road is total integration of the female soldier in the Iraqi army," said Otis Brown II, a senior adviser with the U.S. Army. "We are encouraged by the tremendous progress that we've seen thus far and we look forward to seeing the next steps the Iraqi army will take."