Rape allegations threaten Baghdad security plan

Woman asserts that Iraqi police officers raped her

February 22, 2007|By Christian Berthelsen and Borzou Daragahi | Christian Berthelsen and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On Iraqi television screens this week, two visions of the Baghdad security plan have flickered in people's living rooms. On Iraqiya, the station controlled by the Shiite-dominated government, Iraqi soldiers and police calmly patrolled the streets and searched cars for weapons as Baghdad residents spoke approvingly of the newly safe streets.

On the Sunni-controlled stations such as Sharqiya and Baghdadiya, a 20-year-old Sunni Muslim woman calling herself "Sabreen," wearing a dark scarves covering all but her teary eyes, recounted how three of those officers brutally raped her.

When U.S. and Iraqi forces planned their renewed security effort in Baghdad, they anticipated attacks from suicide bombers, mortar fire and sectarian gunmen. But this week, they are confronting a more formidable threat: the fallout from Sabreen's claims.

The charges are hotly disputed by Iraqi authorities. But regardless of their veracity, the assertions threaten to turn people against the security effort, which is as dependent on public perception as it is on supremacy on the streets.

The claims reinforce the view held by some Sunnis that the new security plan is being executed by militia members determined to extend Shiite Muslim dominance in the new Iraq. Many Iraqis are wondering why Sunni strongholds have been among the first targets of the new security effort, but Sadr City, home to some of the most militant Shiite fighters, has been virtually untouched.

"Iraq has become the theater for conflict between regional and international entities, and the only victim is an innocent Iraqi citizen," Nasir Janabi, a member of a largely Sunni bloc in parliament, said at a news conference yesterday. "The ongoing incidents bring to light the fact that there are dirty hands within the security plan."

Ahmed Samaraie, the head of the Sunni Endowment, said the incident showed that U.S. and Iraqi forces have not gone far enough to cleanse thugs from security forces.

Samaraie called for an international investigation into the rape allegations, but by the end of the day yesterday Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had fired him from his post. (Samaraie disputes the prime minister's authority to fire him.)

In Iraq, rape is a subject so taboo that its victims rarely come forward to report the crime. But word of its use as a weapon in this war is whispered often. In some cases, women who acknowledge being raped have been disowned or killed.

"In a country like Iraq, where personal honor and dignity plays an important role, perhaps more decisive than any political issue, I think it is a very important and significant issue in this security operation," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.

U.S. officials took pains to distance themselves from the case yesterday. In a news conference, Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV said the matter was for the Iraqi government to deal with and added: "It does not imply anything about the multinational force."

The story, as it has emerged in the news media in recent days, is as follows: Police searched the woman's home Sunday and took her to a police station to question her about allegedly aiding insurgents. That evening, she sought treatment at the Ibn Sina hospital, which is staffed with American military medics. She was treated and released Monday morning.

On Monday, Al-Jazeera began airing an interview with the woman in which she recounted details of the alleged rape, including a claim that an officer told her, "We take whatever we want, and we kill whoever we do not want."

A top Iraqi official dismissed the woman's claims, saying she was suspected of working with insurgents. They also said U.S. troops were present at all times during her interrogation, which did not last more than 15 minutes. The accused officers were cleared after a one-day investigation; Iraqi officials also released the woman's name and identifying details about her. Two other officials asserted that the officers involved were Sunnis.

A key discrepancy has emerged over the woman's medical report. The Iraqi official, Brig. Gen. Qassim Musawi, said her medical report taken by the Americans concluded that no sexual assault occurred. But American officials said they have not released the medical report and would not do so unless there is a legal proceeding.

People's faith in the story has largely come down to whether they are Shiite or Sunni.

"We reject any case like this; we do not accept it," said Sheikh Hameed Muaala, a member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, part of the largest Shiite voting bloc in parliament. "I think most of the Iraqis are upset and disgusted by this process of trading the honor and the reputation of Iraqi women."

"I would like to tell you that it's not just allegations; the rape took place, it happened," said Samaraie, of the Sunni Endowment. "We consider that the rape incident is a major crime. And what's worse than that is that Maliki honored the criminals."

Christian Berthelsen and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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