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Iraq: Rape Case Highlights Sectarian Power Struggle

Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is under increasing fire over the allegations (epa) February 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Sunni Arab politicians have attempted in recent days to increase public criticism of the Shi'ite-led government through an all-out media campaign criticizing the government's handling of the alleged rape of a Sunni woman at the hands of Shi'ite security forces.

The incident, reported widely on February 20, occurred when Interior Ministry forces detained the women, identified by the pseudonym Sabrin al-Janabi, for several hours on February 19 on suspicion that she was aiding insurgents.

Al-Janabi told Al-Jazeera television later that day that four officers raped her over a four-hour period. She claimed the officers threatened to kill her if she talked of the attack, and that they took her picture in order to remember her. She was freed after U.S. forces arrived on the scene.
"What is the value of the security plan if our honor is violated?"

In reaction, Sunni parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani told Al-Jazeera on February 19: "Yesterday we were suffering at Abu Ghraib.... Today, what can I say? Shall I say we [Iraqis] are violating our own honor?" He called on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to punish those responsible for the alleged crime and not let the security plan be carried out in such a way. "What is the value of the security plan if our honor is violated?" he added.

The Iraqi government initially promised a thorough investigation, then said hours later that al-Janabi's claim was fabricated. Government spokesman Yassin Majid told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that the woman "was not subject to any sexual harassment at all." Majid added that there were three outstanding warrants against al-Janabi at the time of her detention -- a revelation Sunnis later claimed was aimed at discrediting the woman.

The government said it would reward the officers accused in the alleged incident, and vowed to take action against Al-Jazeera for spreading fabricated information.

Government Response Attacked

The government's February 19 response prompted a backlash from Sunni Arab politicians, who quickly took to the airwaves to criticize al-Maliki's handling of the case. Umar al-Juburi, an adviser to Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, contended that the woman's medical report, obtained from U.S.-run Ibn Sina Hospital, substantiated her claims of rape, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 20. Al-Juburi also disputed claims by al-Maliki's office that there were three outstanding arrest warrants against the woman at the time of her detention.

Al-Mashhadani has led Sunni attacks (epa file photo)

Several other Sunni Arab politicians criticized al-Maliki's handling of the case in interviews with Iraqi and regional media. Parliamentarian Izz al-Din al-Dawlah, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, claimed in an interview with Al-Jazeera television that Iraqi soldiers raped another woman in Tal Afar in recent days.

The Sunni Waqf (religious endowments office) issued a statement on the rape, calling it proof of the failure of the Baghdad security plan. Meanwhile, the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association said in a statement that it was not surprised that al-Maliki denied the rape, but was surprised that he "swiftly honored those accused of committing the crime." That move, it said, showed clear disregard for the dignity of the Iraqi people and sent a message to soldiers taking part in the Baghdad security plan that their actions were above reproach.

At least one Sunni insurgent group has said it will take revenge for the attack. In a February 20 Internet statement, the Islamic Army in Iraq vowed to avenge "every free woman whose purity and honor was robbed." It called on its forces to declare all operations during the Islamic month of Safar, which began this week and ends around March 20, in the name of the victim. The statement also paid homage to Abir, the 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was raped and killed by U.S. soldiers in Al-Mahmudiyah last year.

Prime Minister Returns Fire

The prime minister's office fired back on February 21, releasing what it said was al-Janabi's medical report, which stated in English that "no vaginal lacerations or obvious injuries" were observed during the exam. When asked to comment on the release of the report, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver told Reuters: "We don't know how the prime minister's office got it but we would not normally comment on the specifics of a medical report. We follow the same privacy rules as in the [United] States."

Al-Maliki also dismissed Sunni Waqf head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i. Al-Samarra'i told Al-Arabiyah television in a February 21 interview from Amman, Jordan, that al-Maliki could not dismiss him, since this is the responsibility of the president, according to the constitution.

The Sunni leader contended that Shi'ite security forces commit rape regularly, telling Al-Arabiyah: "There are many girls who have been exposed to sexual assault. I have met with them...I also tell you that I have imams and preachers who were raped in prison.... Major crimes are being committed in the prisons." He said more victims have not come forward because they want to preserve their dignity.

Trading Accusations

To outside observers, it is conceivable that the alleged incident was fabricated in order to provide certain Sunni leaders with an opportunity to discredit the Baghdad security plan and portray the Sunnis as victims of a hostile, Shi'ite-led regime. After all, in an area of the world where rape is viewed as a shame on the family, the victim came forward with her allegations with incredible speed. It would be more likely in such a case that were it revealed publicly, it would be done through a male family member or tribal representative.

Sunnis claim the Baghdad security operation targets them (epa file photo)

Meanwhile, a Shi'ite man alleged at a 21 February press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni Arab parliamentarian Muhammad al-Dayini, from the Iraqi Accordance Front, was involved in the killing of his brother. Samir Awwad said al-Dayini waved his deceased brother's photo on Al-Jazeera television claiming the deceased was a Sunni victim of Shi'ite violence. Awwad asked reporters how al-Dayini could have acquired the photo of his dead brother's body when Awwad himself hasn't been able to find the body after a year of searching.

Al-Dayini later claimed to Al-Arabiyah that the press briefing was organized by a Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, "which is linked with Iran and its intelligence services [and] implements the policies of Iranian security agencies" to make those Iraqis opposed to the "Iranian occupation" look bad. He also implied that Awwad may have been no more than a hired actor.

Power Struggle Thwarts Progress

As sectarian groups vie for political domination, it is of less importance to the parties involved whether this crime or others like it occurred or not. Of greater importance is which side comes out on top in terms of street credibility.

Many of Iraq's Sunni Arab leaders have in the past treated such violations as a political card to be played, caring less about human rights and more about raising public criticism -- in Iraq, the wider Arab world, and in the Western press -- against the government.

Of greater concern is that the furor over the alleged incident could diminish public support for the Baghdad security plan -- and the government in general. And this is the crux of the problem faced by al-Maliki's administration: the ongoing power struggle in Iraq precludes any progress. Movement forward in any one area inevitably leads to a step back in another area.

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