Rape accusation roils Iraq

And we thought such crimes were politicized here.

By Lynn Harris
Published February 21, 2007 5:57PM (EST)

The New York Times reports today that a 20-year-old Sunni woman in Iraq appeared on Al-Jazeera Monday night to accuse three officers in the mostly Shiite Iraqi police force of kidnapping and rape. According to the Times report, this case is remarkable both for its visibility and for the resulting -- and ongoing -- political fallout.

As the Times notes: "The most wicked acts are spoken of openly and without reserve in Iraq. Torture, stabbings and bodies ripped to pieces in bombings are all part of the daily conversation. Rape is different. Rape is not mentioned by the victims, and rarely by the authorities. And when it is discussed publicly, as in several high-profile cases involving American soldiers and Iraqi women, it is usually left to the relatives of the victim to give the explicit details." In this case, however, "bitter exchanges between politicians of various sects were relayed to millions on television, interspersed with clips of the woman telling her story, her face veiled, just the tears in her eyes visible."

There's faint hope at this point of dousing the sectarian flames already fanned -- never mind getting to the bottom of what actually happened. "Whatever the truth of the accusation ... it played to sectarian fears on both sides," the Times observed. "For many Shiites, the charges appeared to be an attempt to smear them and attack the Shiite-led government; for Sunnis, the woman's account only highlighted what they already believed to be true -- that the Iraqi government cares little for justice and promotes a Shiite agenda."

Sure enough, Shiite leaders condemned the woman's story as pure propaganda, while Sunnis offered support. In fact, a top Sunni official who called for an investigation was later dismissed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (Maliki -- who had initially promised a full investigation and punishment for any confirmed perpetrators -- did not offer an explicit reason for the dismissal. His office also released a statement saying medical evidence had proved that the woman had lied. Other sources mentioned by the Times support her story.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. military said only that it was investigating the charges.

Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sunni party that helped the woman come forward, said -- admirably, but perhaps naively -- that the case "should not be dealt with on a sectarian basis." The woman (whose name was released in Iraq but not by the Times), he said, "is a sister for all Iraqis." Whatever the truth of this accusation, we wonder if her "sisters" will now be even less willing to bring forth their own.

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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