Desert Lioness on bomb hunt

BY STEPHANIE GASKELL
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

Saturday, June 9th 2007, 8:20 PM

RUTBAH, Iraq - In a land where Islam forbids men from searching women, it takes a "lioness" to make sure suspicious females aren't hiding bombs beneath their burqas.

Enter 1st Lt. Kelly Hoag, a tough 25-year-old from Westchester, who is the commanding officer of the Marines' Lioness unit - a team of six women who are trained to search Iraqi women.

"The females appreciate us being here," said Hoag as she completed a 30-day tour in this small town near the Jordanian border in Anbar province. "The Lioness Marines are very respectful. We do our searches discreetly, so the men cannot watch."

What Hoag's team does has never been more crucial.

Just last week, three Iraqi policemen were injured when they opened fire on a woman walking toward a Baghdad recruitment station and the explosives concealed under her traditional Islamic garb went off.

Before that, Hoag's team foiled a plot by three women to walk into town wearing suicide bombs beneath their gowns and blow themselves up.

"When we heard this, we searched every single female in town," she said. "It must have worked, because there was no explosion. They must have known we were there. Word gets around fast."

The presence of "lionesses" has also made Iraqi insurgents think twice about dressing in drag to get past checkpoints.

"Just us being there is a deterrent," said Hoag, of Hartsdale. "They know now that women are going to be searched."

Before Hoag's team got the call, the U.S. military often left the searching of women to Iraqi soldiers, who were supposed to be more sensitive.

But according to Hoag, "when male Iraqis used to search them, there have been instances where the women have been taken advantage of."

So when the female Marines took over at the checkpoints, Iraqi soldiers were not thrilled to see them, Hoag said.

"Initially, the Iraqi men were caught off guard," she said. "Now they accept us and treat us with respect."

Hoag didn't plan to be a soldier. She was contemplating becoming a veterinarian or a lawyer when she turned on the television on Sept. 11, 2001, and saw the hijacked planes crash into the twin towers.

"As soon as I turned the television on that day, I said 'I'm joining the military and I'm going to war,'" said Hoag, who was born in Manhattan and raised on Staten Island until she was 8 years old, when her family moved to Hartsdale. She graduated from Edgemont High School in Scarsdale.

This is her second deployment to Iraq. The first was from fall 2005 to spring 2006, where she worked as a watch officer, coordinating the convoys coming in and out of the base.

Her second deployment began in February at nearby Al Taqaddum Airbase, where she works in logistical operations when she is not doing 30-day rotations with the Lioness team. That's what she says she really came here for, to directly help the Iraqi people.

"It took me six years but I finally got to do my part in this war," she said. "My goal that morning when I turned on the television was to get to the front line. Now I'm here."

Ellie