BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. security concerns have clashed with Iraq's traditional culture in a potentially volatile flap over American men frisking Iraqi women.
The practice is not widespread, and the Americans say they use it only as a last resort. But tales of such incidents -- and television footage of a male American soldier patting down a chador-clad Iraqi woman -- have sparked outrage in Iraq (search).
The issue is being talked about throughout the country -- in homes and cafes and during sermons by religious readers at Friday prayers.
"There's no doubt that unrelated men even touching Muslim women is not allowed in our religion," said Sheikh Muhammad Mahmoud al-Samarayee, a cleric at Baghdad's Imam al-Adham seminary.
"If they really want to respect the Muslim people, they have to use women soldiers to search women."
The U.S. military (search) is engaged in a massive campaign to track down insurgents who've been increasing their attacks on American soldiers. The troops are trying to carry out their mission without offending Muslim sensibilities or breaking the religious taboo on men touching unrelated women.
At the al-Rahman mosque in southern Iraq, worshippers recently held a demonstration protesting alleged searches of Iraqi women by male soldiers. When asked about the issue, however, protesters admitted that they had never actually seen an American man patting down an Iraqi woman.
Responding to the concern, the U.S. Central Command (search) issued a June 4 statement acknowledging the "cultural sensitivities" raised by frisking women for weapons.
"When female civilians must be searched, U.S. forces make every effort to have female service members conduct these searches," said the statement. "Although there are times when male service members are required to search female civilians, every effort is made to ensure these searches are conducted in a professional manner with dignity and respect for the individual being searched."
Outside Baghdad's convention center, Sgt. 1st Class James Williams of McCormick, S.C., said male soldiers use the backs of their hands in the rare event that they have to frisk female employees.
"It's done very professionally," he said.
But William Beeman, an anthropologist who heads Middle East studies at Brown University, condemned any searches of women by men as "extraordinarily ignorant and offensive" to Muslims, who may view the searches as a violation of a woman's honor.
"The matter is so serious that for some very conservative people it is the equivalent of being raped, and may render the women, if they are not married, unmarriageable," he said. Rather than preventing violence, the practice could spark more clashes, said Juan Cole, a history professor and Mideast specialist at the University of Michigan.
"Many riots have been set off in colonial history by heavy-handed Western interventions in private life," said Cole.