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Rape allegations further strain Iraqi Sunni-Shiite ties

Story Highlights

• A woman taken in sweep for insurgents says police in Baghdad raped her
• Accuser is Sunni; police force is predominantly Shiite
• Shiite-dominated government says allegations are "fabricated"
• U.S. military investigating, confirms woman admitted to hospital
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Allegations that a Sunni woman was raped by Shiite police officers, and the Iraqi government's response has strained the already frayed relations between followers of the Muslim sects.

The woman appeared Monday on Al-Jazeera alleging she was raped Sunday by three members of the security forces. She said the rape occurred at a police facility after she was seized in a Baghdad raid, allegedly for helping Sunni insurgents.

She didn't identify the attackers as Shiites. But there is an assumption that they were, because Shiites are predominant in the police force. Many Sunnis regard infiltration by Shiite death squad and militia members in the police force as widespread.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government said Monday that the allegations were investigated and that "medical examinations [show] that the woman has not been subjected to any sexual attack whatsoever."

His office released what it said was a copy of the findings of the medical examination. The report, in English from Ibn Sina Hospital, the U.S.-run medical facility in the Green Zone, said there were "no vaginal lacerations or obvious injury."

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed only that the woman was admitted to a medical facility on Sunday and released the next day.

The U.S. military said it is gathering information about the incident, which has sparked "great concern."

Contrasting views

News of the incident reverberated throughout Iraq, spurring outrage from the villages and city neighborhoods. There is also concern in the halls of Iraqi power, where Sunni and Shiites are bickering over how the case is being handled.

The Shiite-dominated government says the "fabricated" story is serving to undermine a security effort -- called Operation Enforcing the Law -- to target insurgents regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation.

Al-Maliki said three warrants have been filed against the woman, but he didn't disclose the charges. He also said that because the rape claims had been made up, he has ordered that the accused officers be rewarded.

Baghdad security plan spokesman Gen. Qassim Atta said the woman, from western Baghdad, is identified as a freedom fighter by some members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni political movement.

He said that police officers found the clothes of a slain kidnap victim in the woman's house.

Although she lived alone, the woman had been seen preparing food for about 10 people at least twice, supporting accusations that she was cooking for insurgents, Atta said.

Police also found a passage leading to a neighboring house with a small infirmary and large amounts of medicine, he said.

Atta said a U.S. military liaison officer, whom he identified as Tom Tally, was present from the time of the woman's detention through her 15-minute interrogation, and that he ensured the Iraqi battalion had followed proper investigation procedures.

The woman told an Iraqi commander that she had been abused by her questioners.

Atta said those who promoted the story and leaked the information to the media will be punished, and he accused some political and religious parties, and Al-Jazeera of stirring up an emotional issue.

"This fabricated story was expected, and it seems like some did not like the success of Operation Enforcing the Law because it implements the law regardless of political interests," Atta said.

"The intent is to obstruct and distort the plan; it is clear there was coordination between different parties inside and outside Iraq and in cooperation with known satellite channels known for their hostile positions against Iraq and its people."

Sunni reaction

One leading Sunni -- Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie, who heads a group that takes care of Sunni mosques and shrines -- was dismissed from his government post by al-Maliki, who gave no reason.

News reports say al-Samaraie was let go after he joined a chorus of Sunnis asking for an international investigation.

The Iraqi Islamic Party and other Sunni groups condemned what they say was a rape and the subsequent investigation.

The Muslim Scholars Association also condemned what it said was an attack by the police force. The story is prominent on many Sunni-oriented Web sites, which refer to the incident as a crime.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group, said in a written statement that it has declared a state of emergency and its operations will now focus on the Iraqi government "and its so-called" security forces.

Taboo discussion

Discussion of rape is taboo in Arab and Muslim society, making the woman's comments on TV shocking.

"In the Arab world, a female can be killed by her closest relative in an attempt to erase the dishonor which accompanies rape," said Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior editor for Arab affairs.

In most Arab societies more attention is focused on the scandal and shame that comes from a rape case than on the victim, Nasr said.

"It would be almost unimaginable for someone to falsely claim that she was raped, because in normal circumstances this would be hidden out of shame," she said.

U.S. investigates

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell confirmed that on Sunday evening an Iraqi woman was brought to a medical facility and put under care of medical personnel. He said she was released Monday.

He said that because of patient privacy issues, the military hasn't discussed the care she was given. He said the medical report the prime minister cited was not from U.S. forces.

She was released with her medical records, and "what she does with them is her own business," Caldwell said.

It is not clear how she came to appear on Al-Jazeera.

Caldwell said that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, ordered the investigation, to be done by a staff judge advocate who is a lawyer.

A timeline is being created, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the information from the investigation would be made available to the Iraqi government.

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A woman who claims she was raped by three members of the Iraqi police force talks to members of the media Monday in Baghdad.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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