The Interior Ministry said it is taking measures to restrict the powers of the agency that runs the religious police, a force resented by many Saudis for interfering in their personal lives.

In a decree carried by the official Saudi Press Agency late Wednesday, Interior Minister Prince Nayefsaid members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or the religious police, can still make arrests in cases like the harassment of women, but probes will now be conducted by the public prosecutors.

"The role of the commission ... ends with the arrest of the suspect or suspects," said the decree, sent to provincial governors across the kingdom.

The morality squad has long enjoyed wide and unchallenged powers. Its members roam public places, such as malls, markets and universities, looking for such infractions as unrelated men and women mingling in public, men skipping the five daily prayers and women with strands of hair showing from under their veil.

They've scolded salesmen for dressing elegantly, waiters for serving food with a smile and young women for carrying pictures of heartthrobs, such as actor Leonardo di Caprio.

After the arrests, the religious police, known as muttawa in Arabic, would sometimes hold people incommunicado and insist on taking part in ensuing probes.

CountryWatch: Saudi Arabia

While some Saudis believe the commission plays a vital role in ensuring full compliance with the strict school of Islam Saudi Arabia follows, others have been speaking out against its intrusions. Some newspapers have published anecdotes of Saudi encounters with the feared agents.

The commission has said it is training its members to be more civil.