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A Rape Case Goes Public, Igniting Political Fray
Prime Minister Draws Wrath by Reversing Stance to Praise Policemen Accused by Sunni

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 20 -- Most facts surrounding the reported rape that has become Iraq's latest political firestorm remain in dispute. But this much is clear:

Three Iraqi policemen, in the span of a few hours, went from being rape suspects to distinguished officers in the eyes of the Shiite-led government.

A Sunni woman's assertion that the officers sexually assaulted her was taken seriously enough to gain her admittance into a U.S.-run medical facility in the fortified Green Zone.

And the handling of the alleged assault has offered a window into Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's idea of damage control.

The 20-year-old married woman said she was taken to an Iraqi police station Sunday after police officers searched her house and accused her of aiding insurgents. She later graphically described her alleged sexual assault in a televised interview that has made her a fixture on Arab news channels since the story broke Monday.

The woman said neighbors alerted U.S. soldiers that she had been arrested, which led to her release. She was admitted to Ibn Sina Hospital, which is run by the U.S. military. Iraqis treated there are generally admitted at the request of U.S. officials.

"The woman was here," a hospital spokesman, 1st Lt. Justin Kocher, said Tuesday night. "She received the care she needed," he added, declining to elaborate.

Reports of rape are rare in Iraq, as in most of the Middle East. They seldom become newsworthy events. But Maliki injected himself into the case, issuing a news release announcing that the government had convened a committee to investigate and would hold the perpetrators responsible. The initial news release identified the woman, who has a common Sunni name.

Hours later, Maliki reversed course, issuing another statement calling the woman an impostor and a criminal with three outstanding warrants.

"After confirming the falsehood of these claims," it said, Maliki "has ordered that these distinguished officers be honored." It did not identify the officers or explain why the accolades were justified.

Saleh Muhamed al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of parliament, decried the way Maliki handled the case and accused him of covering up the acts of what he said must have been a rogue group of officers at the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.

"They gave them a compliment," he said about the officers. "That's an insult to the family and the tribe. To do that in such a fast way is not fair. The investigation should have been done in a quiet, steady way, taking time to get the reality."

The Sunni speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also criticized Maliki. "By God, if you don't bring justice to this Muslim Iraqi woman, whom you should view as your sister or daughter," he said in a televised interview, "history will curse us with eternal disgrace."

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group, weighed in more forcefully, issuing a statement on its Web site vowing to avenge the alleged assault. The statement declared a "state of maximum alert" and called on its followers to "intensify attacks against the Iraqi security forces" in support of Sunni Muslim women.

The threat came on a day when at least 11 people were killed by car bombs in the capital, a police spokesman said.

North of Baghdad, at least six people were killed and more than 100 hospitalized after a truck apparently carrying a toxic chemical exploded, another police spokesman said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair planned to announce Wednesday the withdrawal of 1,500 British troops from Iraq in the coming months, rising to 3,000 by Christmas, the BBC reported Tuesday. Britain has about 7,000 troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the president of the Iraqi Journalists Union said U.S. troops raided the group's office Monday and detained 10 of its guards. Shihab al-Timimi called the raid "a strange and irresponsible act" and said he has called the U.S. ambassador in Iraq and the U.S. military.

Military officials did not immediately respond to an e-mail sent Tuesday night asking for information on the reported raid.

The U.S. military disclosed the death on Tuesday of a soldier killed in Anbar province in western Iraq.

Correspondent Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Mehdawi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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