US abuse of Iraqis fuels insurgency

BAGHDAD — No sooner had US authorities filed rape and murder charges against ex-soldier Steven D. Green than an account of the incident appeared on an Islamist website in the name of an insurgent group, the Mujahedeen Army. It promised “harsh punishment” for the alleged crime.

After three years of war, allegations of US soldiers abusing civilians often draw more media attention in the United States than in Iraq. And they generate little more than perfunctory statements from Iraq’s leaders, who depend on American troops for their political and physical survival.

However, such reports do serve to motivate insurgents, who seize upon them for propaganda value. The allegations also undermine public confidence in the US-backed government and complicate America’s hopes of reducing forces.

The alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi girl in Mahmoudiya and the killing of her father, mother and sister last March is just the latest case in point.

Green was charged Monday in federal court in Charlotte, North Carolina, and up to four others still in uniform are under investigation in Iraq.

Such cases — both real and perceived — place Iraq’s civilian leaders in a quandary.

On the one hand, Iraqi leaders cannot disregard the complaints of their own citizens and expect to maintain any credibility. That affects the United States, too, because it is anxious for the new Iraqi government to win public trust.

On the other hand, Iraqi leaders can’t afford to criticise the US military too much, and play into the hands of those who want to see American and other international forces leave soon.

In its Internet account of the Mahmoudiya case, the insurgent group implied that Iraqi authorities did not take the case seriously at first because the victims — like most insurgents — were Sunnis.

All that explains the measured public response of the Iraqi government to the Mahmoudiya case, as well as to other allegations, including claims that US Marines killed about two dozen civilians in Haditha last November.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s justice minister demanded that the UN Security Council ensure punishment for those guilty in the rape-slaying, branding the attack “monstrous and inhuman”. So far, however, no statement has been issued by Iraq’s president or prime minister.

During an interview Sunday with CNN, the Iraqi industry minister, a Kurd, cautioned against drawing conclusions about the rape-slaying based on “purely speculative reports”. He warned that the Mahmoudiya case “will be taken … out of context” by “enemies of the friendly relations between Iraq and the United States”. The fallout over Mahmoudiya did not stop President Jalal Talabani from warmly praising America, telling a 4th of July reception at the US embassy that the world “always looked up to the United States for support in their just causes”. Top figures from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties were all in attendance.

Such words highlight the fact that many Iraqi officials — Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis alike — want the US military to stay for now, and fear that an abrupt drawdown would leave the country in chaos and their own government unable to survive.

The fact that the Mahmoudiya allegations include rape is likely to stir a special sense of outrage in a religiously conservative society where women are sheltered and where sex outside of marriage can bring shame on entire families.

For years the insurgents have spread rumours — roundly denied by US officials — of the systematic rape of Iraqi women held in US-run jails. True or not, the Mahmoudiya case will be seen by many Iraqis as confirmation of those rumours.

“The rape of an Iraqi girl by a bunch of US soldiers who stalked her house summarises what has been going on in Iraq for the past years,” said Iraq’s biggest Sunni-owned newspaper, Azzaman, under a headline “The Rape of an Honest Woman.” Such comments, fair or not, resonate within a society where honour and pride are highly esteemed.

Indeed, many Iraqis — even those who see benefits in a continued US military role here — consider the mere presence of foreign soldiers as an affront to their pride.

Such feelings are heightened by the countless petty indignities suffered daily by Iraqis — from delays at checkpoints and random searches of homes to perceived affronts at the hands of soldiers who do not speak their language or understand their culture.

“We disapprove of this shameful crime,” one Baghdad resident, Saad Ali, said of the Mahmoudiya case.

“We ask the US army in the name of humanity and especially in the name of Iraqi honour to leave Iraqi land.”

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