By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 3, 2006; A15
BAGHDAD, July 2 -- Fifteen-year-old Abeer Qasim Hamza was afraid, her mother confided in a neighbor.
As pretty as she was young, the girl had attracted the unwelcome attention of U.S. soldiers manning a checkpoint that the girl had to pass through almost daily in their village in the south-central city of Mahmudiyah, her mother told the neighbor.
Abeer told her mother again and again in her last days that the soldiers had made advances toward her, a neighbor, Omar Janabi, said this weekend, recounting a conversation he said he had with the girl's mother, Fakhriyah, on March 10.
Fakhriyah feared that the Americans might come for her daughter at night, at their home. She asked her neighbor if Abeer might sleep at his house, with the women there.
Janabi said he agreed.
Then, "I tried to reassure her, remove some of her fear," Janabi said. "I told her, the Americans would not do such a thing."
Abeer did not live to take up the offer of shelter.
Instead, attackers came to the girl's house the next day, apparently separating Abeer from her mother, father and young sister.
Janabi and others knowledgeable about the incident said they believed that the attackers raped Abeer in another room. Medical officials who handled the bodies also said the girl had been raped, but they did not elaborate.
Before leaving, the attackers fatally shot the four family members -- two of Abeer's brothers had been away at school -- and attempted to set Abeer's body on fire, according to Janabi, another neighbor who spoke on condition of anonymity, the mayor of Mahmudiyah and a hospital administrator with knowledge of the case.
The U.S. military said last week that authorities were investigating allegations of a rape and killings in Mahmudiyah by soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 4th Infantry Division.
The mayor of Mahmudiyah, Mouyad Fadhil Saif, said Sunday that the case was being investigated by the U.S. military as an alleged atrocity.
Janabi was one of the first people to arrive at the house after the attack, he said Saturday, speaking to a Washington Post special correspondent at the home of local tribal leaders. He said he found Abeer sprawled dead in a corner, her hair and a pillow next to her consumed by fire, and her dress pushed up to her neck.
"I was sure from the first glance that she had been raped," he said.
Despite the reassurances he had given the girl's mother earlier, Janabi said, "I wasn't surprised what had happened, when I found that the suspicion of the mother was correct."
The U.S. military has not identified the victims. U.S. military officials contacted this weekend said they did not know the names of the people involved or most other details of the case, although one military official confirmed that according to preliminary information gathered by investigators, the family lived near a U.S. checkpoint and the killings happened about March 12.
The military official pointed to one discrepancy in the accounts, however. Preliminary information in the military investigation put the age of the alleged rape victim at 20, rather than 15, as reported by her neighbors, officials and hospital records and officials in Mahmudiyah.
U.S. soldiers at the scene initially ascribed the killings to Sunni Arab insurgents active in the area, the U.S. military and local residents said. That puzzled villagers, who knew that the family was Sunni, Janabi said. Other residents assumed the killings were sectarian, with Shiite Muslim militiamen as the likely culprit.
But on June 23, three months after the incident, two soldiers of the 502nd came forward to say that soldiers of the unit were responsible, a U.S. military official said last week. The U.S. military began an investigation the next day, the official said.
Officials said last week that none of the four soldiers under investigation had been detained, although one had been discharged for unrelated reasons.
Family members have given permission for exhumation of Abeer's body, Janabi and the mayor said.
The case is at least the fourth American military investigation announced since March of alleged atrocities by U.S. forces in Iraq.
The rape allegation makes the Mahmudiyah case potentially incendiary in Iraq. Rape is seen as a crime smearing the honor of the family as well as the victim in conservative communities here.
Death certificates viewed Sunday at the Mahmudiyah hospital identified the victims as Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 34, killed by gunshots to her head; Qasim Hamza Raheem, 45, whose head was "smashed" by bullets; Hadeel Qasim Hamza, 7, Abeer's sister, shot; and Abeer, shot in the head. Abeer's body also showed burns, the death certificate noted.
Janabi said U.S. soldiers controlled the scene of the killings for several hours on March 11, telling neighbors that insurgents were responsible. The bodies of the victims were taken to Mahmudiyah hospital by March 12, according to Janabi and an official at the hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
On March 13, a man identifying himself as a relative claimed the bodies for burial, the hospital official said. An hour after the man left with the bodies, U.S. soldiers came to the hospital and asked about the bodies, the hospital official said.
The next day, the hospital official said, soldiers scoured the area, trying to find the funeral for the family.
"But they did not find it, simply because the relatives did not do it, because the death includes the rape of one of the family members, which is something shameful in our tradition," the hospital official said.
"The family kept the news a secret, fearing the disgrace," he said. "They thought it was done by militias, not U.S. forces."
Reached by telephone Saturday at his home in Iskandariyah, south of Mahmudiyah, a member of the extended family would not discuss the incident.
"What is the benefit of publishing this story?" said Abeer's uncle, Bassem. "People will read about this crime. And they will forget about it the next day."
Two special correspondents in Mahmudiyah and special correspondent Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.