BAGHDAD, Feb. 22 -- An Iraqi police official in the northwestern city of Tall Afar said Thursday that a military officer and three soldiers had admitted to raping a Sunni woman and recording the act with a cellphone camera.
The four soldiers told an investigative committee convened by the Iraqi army that they sexually assaulted the woman nearly two weeks ago, according to Gen. Najem Abdullah, a police spokesman in Tall Afar.
The soldiers' statement follows another Sunni woman's assertion this week that she had been raped in Baghdad by members of Iraq's predominantly Shiite security forces. Iraq's Kurdish president and its Sunni vice president said Thursday that a judge should investigate her case, which the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dismissed as groundless.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in a statement that the courts were "the only legitimate place to examine such allegations" and that the government should avoid steps that would "inflame sensitivities and create mistrust."
Talabani's stance, echoed by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, is sharply at odds with Maliki's insistence that the 20-year-old Baghdad woman who contends three Iraqi policemen raped her Sunday is a criminal who fabricated the story to exacerbate sectarian tension and undermine a U.S. and Iraqi security plan to pacify the capital.
The case has caused a political uproar -- with Sunnis demanding justice and Shiites defending the officers -- in a society where public discussion of rape is rare.
"In this country, [rape] is more serious than any other crime," said Wamid Nadhme, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "The religious values and the honor values say that one should not violate a woman. This will have very serious implications in coming days if neither side is able to prove that they are right and the other side is wrong."
"Sexual violence is a well-documented tool of war," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa sections of Human Rights Watch. But in Iraq, "this case is the first of its kind."
The day after the Baghdad woman's allegation came to light, Maliki said the accused officers deserved to be honored. He said the government would sue her for making the claim.
The U.S. government has remained largely on the sidelines, even though many Iraqis view the Americans as the only potential impartial arbiter. The woman was treated at a U.S. military-run medical facility in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
Maliki's office e-mailed to reporters portions of her medical record, which showed health-care providers had documented signs of bruising on her inner thighs, groin and head. The document also included a handwritten note in English saying there were no signs of trauma in the patient's vagina.
U.S. officials initially said they would issue a statement on the case but later said discussing it would violate patient privacy guidelines.
Khalid Mohammed Hassan, a civic activist in Tall Afar, called the rape case there "a very dangerous crime and a very ugly crime."
"Such ugly practices will push the citizens to not cooperate with the security forces or the army, and they'll be afraid they'll be in the same position," he said.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group, issued an audio statement on its Web site Thursday saying 300 insurgents have volunteered to conduct suicide operations to avenge the woman who came forward Monday. At least 50 are from the woman's tribe, and 20 offered to marry her if she is single, the statement says.