Troops Facing Murder Probe

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 1, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 30 -- The U.S. Army is investigating allegations that American soldiers raped and killed a woman and killed three of her family members in a town south of Baghdad, then reported the incident as an insurgent attack, a military official said Friday.

The alleged crimes occurred in March in the insurgent hotbed of Mahmudiyah. The four soldiers involved, from the 502nd Infantry Regiment, attempted to burn the family's home to the ground and blamed insurgents for the carnage, according to a military official familiar with the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was providing details not released publicly.

No charges have yet been filed in the case, which the official said was "in the very early stages."

Maj. Gen James D. Thurman, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, to which the 502nd is attached, ordered the investigation into the killings more than a week ago, according to a terse statement released by the military Friday. A preliminary inquiry "found sufficient information existed to recommend a criminal investigation into the incident," the statement said.

Also Friday, the military reported the deaths of three soldiers in insurgent attacks Thursday. One was killed by a roadside bomb while on foot patrol in Baghdad. Another died in a roadside bomb attack in Balad, north of Baghdad. The third was killed by small-arms fire in the northern city of Mosul. No further information was provided.

The case in Mahmudiyah, a rural town in a Sunni Arab region dubbed the Triangle of Death for the insurgent attacks and crimes that are common there, was the latest in a string of allegations of unlawful killings -- and subsequent coverups -- by U.S. forces in recent months, beginning with reports in March that Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians in the western town of Haditha. Investigations continue into that case.

In June, seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were charged with murder and other crimes related to the shooting death of a crippled man in Hamdaniya, west of Baghdad. Residents there said the soldiers planted a rifle and a shovel near the victim's body to make it look as if he had been burying roadside bombs.

Later in June, three soldiers were charged with murdering three Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody and threatening to kill another soldier who saw the incident. And last week, two Pennsylvania National Guardsmen were charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed man in the western city of Ramadi and with trying to cover up the crime.

At least 14 U.S. service members have been convicted of crimes related to the deaths of Iraqi civilians or detainees, according to the Associated Press. Investigations have intensified in recent months following the high-profile Haditha allegations, pressure from the Iraqi government on military commanders to curtail excessive force by soldiers, and an initiative by Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the top U.S. ground commander in Iraq, to cut down on civilian casualties.

But the prospect that soldiers may have committed rape could make the Mahmudiyah allegations particularly incendiary. Charges that U.S. forces have killed civilians come as little shock to many Iraqis, but sex crimes -- especially those perpetrated against Muslim women by someone outside the faith -- can generate greater outrage in the Islamic world. The 2004 Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal inflamed passions in large part because of the sexual humiliations detainees suffered.

Ammar Jabouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political organization and a frequent critic of U.S. actions against Iraqi civilians, said he was unaware of previous charges of rape against American soldiers.

Jabouri said that when he and others have spoken to U.S. officials about abuses by troops, the officials "explain it as 'reckless behavior by soldiers under stress.' They promise to investigate, but nothing comes out of that."

The unit in Mahmudiyah had attributed the deaths of the four civilians to "insurgent activity, which is common in the area," until two soldiers from the 502nd came forward June 23 to say U.S. troops were responsible, the military official said. An investigation began the next day. Three of the soldiers are still in Iraq, and one has been discharged for reasons unrelated to the case, he said. None is under confinement.

"They cannot be held until or unless there is enough evidence," the official said.

Mahmudiyah police Capt. Maaly Hassan Felayh said the killings in March took place in a rural neighborhood called Stream Three, three miles south of the town center.

It was one of three cases since February in which U.S. forces killed Iraqi troops in the area, he said, including a shooting at a checkpoint in April that left 11 Iraqis dead.

Another local resident, Sadeq Muhammed al-Janabi, a farmer, said the woman who was raped and killed was an elementary school teacher.

In mid-June, two other members of the same brigade were abducted, their bodies later found mutilated in the town of Yusufiyah, near Mahmudiyah. The soldiers under investigation for the killings in Mahmudiyah were from the same platoon as those later abducted and killed, the AP reported, citing an account provided by an unnamed official with the unit who said the incidents were unrelated. Platoons usually number about 40 soldiers.

The AP, whose reporter was embedded with the 502nd in early June, also reported Friday that at least one soldier had confessed to involvement in the alleged crimes and was motivated to come forward when his fellow soldiers were kidnapped and murdered.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Friday, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on followers to prepare themselves to go to the predominantly Sunni Arab northern city of Samarra to help rebuild a Shiite shrine damaged in a February bombing that triggered months of sectarian violence. "Believers inside and outside Iraq should register their names as volunteers to build and protect the holy shrine," said Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia terrorized Sunni neighborhoods following the bombing of Samarra's Askariya Shrine.

In Baghdad, the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni religious organization with close ties to some Iraqi insurgent groups, rejected a plan for reconciliation between Iraq's rival sects proposed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki offered amnesty to insurgents who had not committed major crimes and said some insurgent groups had responded positively to the offer.

But in an interview with the Agence France-Presse news agency, Muthana Hareth Dhari, a Muslim Scholars official, said that "the main resistance factions have rejected" the plan and called it "nothing but a public relations campaign to brighten the image of the government."

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer, special correspondents Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company