BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government has ordered all policewomen to hand in their guns for redistribution to men or face having their pay withheld, thwarting a U.S. initiative to bring women into the nation's police force.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees police, issued the order late in November, according to ministry documents, U.S. officials and several of the women.

It affects all officers who earned the title "policewoman" by graduating from the police academy, even if their jobs do not require them to be on the streets. 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 Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who has led the effort to recruit female officers.

"We nursed it along," he said of the recruiting effort. "We saw this as: 'If we could get 50 percent of the brainpower in this country that is not being utilized engaged, how much further along would we be?' "

Without policewomen, Phillips said, there would be no officers to search 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. adviser said forcing out female officers would hamper investigation of crimes such as rape, which stigmatizes women in Iraq, because few victims feel comfortable reporting it to men.

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 traditionally have been allowed to carry their Glock pistols with them after hours for security.

"We are considered policewomen," a 27-year-old said. "We face kidnap. We could be assassinated. If anyone knew where we worked, of course they would try to do something to us. How can I be a policewoman without a weapon?"

Phillips said the gun recall was the latest in a series of moves that have limited many policewomen to desk jobs. The few who worked on the streets have been reassigned to administrative tasks. Iraqi law still prevents policewomen from advancing to commanding-officer levels. Phillips said women had complained to him about limited opportunities and harassment by male colleagues.

U.S. trainers began recruiting women for the Iraqi police 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 from training. Since U.S. authorities handed over responsibility for police recruitment and training to Iraqi authorities in February 2006, Phillips said, female recruits have dropped to virtually zero.

Phillips said that when he questioned the plan to rein in female officers, one Interior Ministry official told him: "Females are taken care of by men in this country. They are not out there being police officers."

Efforts to get a ministry official to explain the weapons order were unsuccessful. The official spokesman did not respond to telephone messages.

Despite the ministry's order, the women said they would not hand in their weapons. If their pay is withheld at month's end, they plan to protest. They said they were counting on U.S. authorities to support them and force the ministry to back off.

Phillips said U.S. officials had limited options.

"It's a sovereign nation," he said. "We turned over the running of their own police force to them. We don't have a veto."