BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S. military is investigating four U.S. soldiers accused of raping an Iraqi woman near their guard post, killing her and three family members, and burning down their home with the bodies still inside.
The rape and murder case, announced yesterday, was opened by the military a week ago after two U.S. soldiers came forward with information about the alleged incident in the town of Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad.
A terse statement issued yesterday by the U.S. Army said that on June 23 the two soldiers reported the alleged American involvement in the family's death March 12 and that a preliminary investigation had found sufficient evidence to continue.
"We found out when someone spilled their guts," said a U.S. military official with knowledge of the probe, which is being conducted by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command under orders from Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division.
"There is a lot of heat on the leadership," the official said. "This is the last thing we need."
The rape allegations are potentially explosive in a Muslim nation where tribal relations often enforce female chastity under penalty of death.
The incident under investigation was in the same area as the kidnapping and mutilation murders of two Army privates last month, an Army official said, and involve the same unit - the 502nd Infantry Regiment, which is attached to the 4th Infantry Division - but it was unclear whether there was a connection between the deaths of the Iraqi family in Mahmudiya and the June 16 attack on the U.S. soldiers at an observation post near Youssifiya.
One soldier was killed in that attack, and two were kidnapped. The pair's bodies were found mutilated and booby-trapped with explosives almost four days later.
Lying along the Euphrates River, Mahmudiya and Youssifiya are within an area many Iraqis call the "Triangle of Death" because of the high level of insurgent violence. Scores of Iraqis, especially Shiites on their way to southern Iraq, have been killed in the area.
The Army official, speaking on condition on anonymity because of the continuing investigation, said the soldiers in the victims' unit were in a "combat stress debriefing" a week after the kidnapping in order to deal with any psychological issues stemming from the incident.
At the session, the Army official said, one soldier told his superiors that he had heard of other members of the unit who were involved in the rape of a woman and the killing of three others.
The investigation turned up another witness, who said that he had heard the same account and added that the soldiers involved were seen with blood on their uniforms.
Military investigators now believe that two soldiers raped the Iraqi woman, and one of them followed the assault by killing her and three others - two adults and a child - in the same house.
The incident was initially reported as "insurgent activity," the military source said
Soldiers under investigation have been confined to their base and stripped of their weapons, said the military source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing probe.
The Army official said one of the soldiers had been discharged from the Army and was back in the U.S., where the military was working with civilian authorities to track him down.
Several scandals involving allegations that servicemen killed unarmed Iraqi civilians have led to investigations by the U.S. military.
After a Time magazine story in March alleged that Marines killed 24 Iraqi civilians, including 10 women and children, in the western town of Haditha on Nov. 19, the military responded with an investigation of the incident and whether military officials had conspired to cover it up.
The military is also investigating seven Marines and a Navy medical corpsman in connection with the kidnapping and slaying April 26 of an Iraqi civilian in Hamandiya, a town west of Baghdad. That case also involves a possible cover-up.
Last week, military officials announced that two soldiers had been charged with voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of an unarmed Ramadi resident on Feb. 15.
The soldiers are accused of trying to make the man look like an insurgent by placing a rifle next to his body.
In Mahmudiya, investigators are trying to determine whether the bodies were burned to destroy evidence of a crime.
Moayed Fadil, the mayor of Youssifiya, said that U.S. military investigators called him Thursday to ask questions about the incident and that he found it unusual that they would be so interested in this particular family.
"They said, we want to know their names, where they were living, how they were killed," he said. "They asked me, `Do you know their relatives or the chief of their tribe?' I told them I will work to find out who their relatives are."
He said the investigators who called him did not divulge that four U.S. soldiers had been accused in the deaths.
The military source acknowledged that was unusual for such a small number of soldiers to be operating alone in Iraq.
Generally, U.S. troops travel in convoys. The lack of manpower south of Baghdad is a chronic problem that may have led commanders to stretch their forces thin, the military source said.
"I don't want to speculate on what the commander down there was thinking, but I don't know why he had his troops arrayed that way," the source said. "I do know there's a lack of manpower down there."
Solomon Moore and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.