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.
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.
Rape is a taboo topic in Iraq, and lethal revenge, even against the female victim by male family members, is not punishable under the law.
The saga began Sunday when the woman was detained along with about 10 suspected Sunni insurgents occupying homes from which Shiite residents had been forced out. One of the Iraqis who made the arrest said the police had been tipped off by Iraqi soldiers at a nearby base that Sunni insurgents had moved into a house in Al Amel.
Four police commandos entered the house shortly after the 6 a.m. curfew, and were surprised to find Janabi sleeping there alone, according to an Iraqi 1st lieutenant who was one of the four. Janabi appeared "disturbed," and complained of problems with her kidneys and nerves to explain the presence of tablets this officer said were sedatives or painkillers.
She gave her name as Zainab, according to this officer's account, but had no identity or residence papers, which she claimed her husband had just left with. Another police commando recognized Janabi from a raid just two days before, on Friday, in which she was at another abandoned house and cooking for 10 people.
"You are like a cat, every day in a different house," the officer recalled telling Janabi. Other officers who recognized her recalled that the jacket of a kidnap victim had been found near the house where she was cooking on Friday. The body of that kidnapped person – along with four other corpses – was found in a nearby secondary school on Monday.
When asked what she was doing there, Janabi apparently told that she had "deceived" the officers the previous Friday, in explaining herself.
Janabi was not handcuffed, Iraqi officers say, but first was put in the open-backed truck of the deputy commander, and then separated from the male detainees – who were shortly released – and locked in the back of a military ambulance alone to be driven to the garrison.
"I received orders to put her in the back of the ambulance," says the driver of the vehicle, Saad. He said American troops saw Janabi as she was put in, and told him: "Transport her to the camp," indicating that they would soon meet him there.
According to the driver, Janabi was never tied and was deposited directly in the office of the Iraqi camp commander. Janabi was in that room for questioning for 20 minutes, says the Iraqi major who was present, in an interview. Americans were in the room throughout, says this officer.
"It was just question and answer. Nothing happened," the major asserts. They asked about why she had been found cooking for so many people two days earlier, on Friday, and why there were holes in the walls connecting abandoned houses – a tactic typically used for quick escapes. They told her about the significance of the jacket and the kidnap victim.
Within hours of the house raid Sunday, Shiite witnesses, who had been with the police commandos and hoped to reclaim their houses from Sunni gunmen, said that among those arrested was a "prostitute" who appeared drunk or on drugs. Some Iraqis, Shiite and Sunni alike, say they are suspicious of the woman's story.
"Maybe it's fake and they gave her some money to say this – to be an actress," suggests one older Sunni woman, who also happens to be from the large al-Janabi tribe and could not be named. "Sometimes women like these give information to the insurgents because they give them money, and make calls to the police or US troops to set them up for insurgent ambushes."
Even as Sunni and Shiite politicians struggle to take advantage of the perception gap over assault charges, ABC News on its website quoted an Iraqi government source saying that Janabi had recanted her claims, saying she was never raped, and had been paid for the television interview.
Adding more spin to the case, that source said the story was meant to "manipulate the security plan," as part of a "great effort by the bad guys to tell the world that this [plan] is not working."
• Awadh al-Taiee contributed to this report in Baghdad.