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Iraq rape charge stirs sectarian storm

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2007


The armored convoy of Iraqi officials rolled into a police garrison in southwest Baghdad Wednesday to investigate highly charged claims of rape by a Sunni woman against Shiite police commandos.

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They brought with them Sabrin al-Janabi, the alleged victim and the center of a political firestorm that has spread across Iraq in the aftermath of these rarely public allegations. Iraq's deputy minister of interior aimed to see if he could identify the perpetrators, to calm claims that are being amplified by politicians and fueling sectarian tensions.

Indeed, Iraq is a country where perception, instead of fact, often defines wartime realities.

Even before the details of the case could be determined, Iraqis heard competing claims by the alleged Sunni victim broadcast on TV and a Shiite premier who says the charges have been fabricated to undermine the US-Iraqi security plan in Baghdad.

Interviews with officers who jailed Mrs. Janabi (a nickname used by the woman), witnesses to her brief arrest, and other sources cast doubt on the rape claims. US officers – who were apparently present in the garrison during the alleged incident, Iraqi officers claim – have so far not provided their version of events.

In the latest sign of the toll taken on Iraq's fragile unity government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Wednesday fired a top Sunni official, the head of the Sunni Endowment board, whose group declared the "horrific crime" to be proof that the Baghdad crackdown is a failure.

Mr. Maliki states that medical tests show the woman "had not been subjected to any sexual attack," and that there are three outstanding arrest warrants against her. Maliki's office Wednesday released a one-page medical report, typical of those used in US military facilities here, that appeared to prove that point. The handwritten words "no vaginal lacerations or obvious injury" are clear, though the place for the name is covered by a sticker with a number.

In a statement, the premier blamed "certain parties" for trying to "sow confusion about the security plan and tarnish the reputation of our forces," adding that the three falsely accused officers would be "rewarded."

But Janabi's claims and Maliki's handling of the case are sparking outrage among Sunnis.

"One of them put his hand on my mouth so no one outside the room could hear me," Janabi said on television. "I told them 'I did not know that an Iraqi could do this to another Iraqi.' "

Iraqi officers interviewed at the garrison and involved in the arrest in the Al Amel district dispute those claims, saying that Janabi spent only 20 minutes in the office of the garrison commander with several Iraqis asking questions. They were in the constant presence of US soldiers inside the room, says an Iraqi major who asked not to be named.

Sunni leaders have already accused the US and Shiite-led government of singling out their neighborhoods for clearance in the security plan; the rape charges fed those concerns.

Mahmoud al-Mashadani, the Sunni speaker of parliament, warned that "if you [Maliki] don't bring justice to this Muslim Iraqi woman, whom you should view as your sister or daughter, history will curse us with eternal disgrace."

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a major Sunni insurgent group, vowed on its website that they would "not sleep or be satisfied until we avenge you and every free woman who was stripped of her virtue and dignity."

The group called on its militants to "focus" their attacks against Iraqi troops, especially police commandos, in a campaign that for the next month would be called "Sabrin," after the alleged victim.

US soldiers, whom the woman claimed had helped free her from the Iraqi police commandos, have yet to confirm such a role. The woman "received care" at a US hospital in the Green Zone overnight Sunday, said a US spokesman.

"Many of the events and circumstances surrounding this alleged assault are still being pulled together ... to establish what may or may not have happened," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told a press conference Wednesday. The top US commander in Iraq has appointed a military lawyer to examine the case.