Iraq War: Rape, Chemical Warfare and US Helicopters

Chaos gained the upper hand this week in Iraq with a series of developments that threaten to derail the last-ditch security plan launched by US and Iraqi forces less than two weeks ago. Reports are emerging that rape is being used as an instrument of war, that the insurgency’s new strategies include chemical warfare and systematic attacks on US helicopters, and that gunfire and bombings by US troops in al-Anbar province left 26 Iraqi civilians dead.

Rape allegations surfaced this week in which two Sunni women said they were assaulted by Iraqi forces when their homes were searched for weapons and insurgents. A 50 year-old Sunni woman in Tal Afar said three Iraqi soldiers raped her in her home on February 8 while a lieutenant filmed the assault on his mobile phone. A fifth soldier reportedly stopped the rape at gunpoint. Three of the men have confessed and have been referred to judicial authorities.

On al-Jazeera television the woman discussed her allegations with her face covered. When asked why she did not report the attack immediately, she responded, “Who do I complain to? No one allows us to complain.” The sectarian implications of the incident are not yet clear. Shiite politicians have claimed that two of the men are Sunni Arabs, while the acting mayor of Tal Afar has said the men are from southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shiite.

Meanwhile, a 20 year-old Sunni woman alleged that she had been raped on Sunday by three Iraqi policemen at a police garrison, where she was taken after her home in western Baghdad was searched for weapons and insurgents. She said US soldiers rescued her and brought her to a US-run medical facility in Baghdad. General David Petraeus, the US forces commander in Iraq, ordered that any evidence taken be secured and then handed over to the appropriate Iraqi judicial authority, in accordance with US policy.

However, after launching an investigation on Monday evening, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared on Tuesday morning that the woman is a criminal, that her allegations are false and intended to discredit the security operation, and that the policemen had been cleared of any wrongdoing. He added that the ‘distinguished officers’ would be ‘rewarded’, but did not elaborate.

The seemingly superficial investigation has outraged the Sunni minority population, and the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has vowed revenge on the woman’s behalf. In an audio tape entitled “To Your Rescue, Sister” posted on the Internet on Thursday, Abu Ayyub al-Masri said that “more than 300 militants asked to go on martyrdom [suicide] operations in the first 10 hours of hearing the news.”

It is extremely rare for women to report rape in Iraq for fear of being ‘disowned’ or even killed by male relatives desperate to restore the family’s ‘honor’.  In this case, some Iraqi authorities, including Sunnis, have rejected the woman’s claims because she went public with her allegations (her face concealed) on Arabic television.

“What has been said about the woman’s rape seems like a fantasy,” said Aida Osayran, a Sunni member of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, according to the Associated Press. “It is certain that what she says is improper because it is not in our customs and traditions.”

Yet Isobel Coleman, director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said she believes that rape is widespread in Iraq and is being used as an instrument of war.

There is little doubt that the rape allegations, and the provocative manner in which the al-Maliki government has handled the younger woman’s case, have only further fuelled sectarian tensions and undermined confidence in the government.

Meanwhile, the plan to restore order in Iraq has been dealt another devastating blow by a series of explosions across the country using the chemical element chlorine. The first such attack occurred on January 28, when a truck packed with explosives and chlorine was set off in al-Anbar province in western Iraq, killing 12 people. Al-Anbar is the base of al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

This week, two similar attacks confirmed that this is a new tactic of the insurgency. On Tuesday, a bomb attached to a chlorine tanker north of Baghdad exploded, which apparently caused no fatalities but injured 150 villagers. The following day, a pickup truck carrying explosives and chlorine gas cylinders blew up in Baghdad, killing five and leaving 55 people with severe respiratory distress and stinging eyes.

On Thursday, US forces reportedly discovered a chemical factory in Fallujah (another known insurgent stronghold) including 65 propane tanks and an assortment of chemicals. US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that three vehicle bombs were clearly being prepared at the facility. A raft of other weaponry found included mortar rounds, rockets and anti-aircraft shells.

Experts have pointed out that, while the use of chlorine in the recent bombings has dramatically raised the level of fear and chaos, the relatively crude assemblies have actually made the attacks less lethal. Steve Kornguth, director of the biological and chemical defense program at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Associated Press, “They are putting canisters of chlorine on trucks with bombs, which then puncture the canisters and release the chemical. But it hasn’t been very effective because the high temperature created by the bombs oxidizes the chemical, making it less dangerous.”Nevertheless, the use of chemical warfare by insurgents has been deeply unsettling for the local population and US forces determined to restore order.

Meanwhile, eight US helicopters have been brought down by insurgents since January 20, the latest on Wednesday in Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad. The pilot managed to make a ‘hard landing’ without casualties and the crew was quickly rescued by another helicopter. It is believed that insurgents have been studying US flight plans and have acquired more sophisticated weapons enabling them to shoot down the helicopters, wreaking havoc on the US military dependent on the flights in order to transport troops around Iraq. Two suspects have been detained in relation to the latest attack.

The harrowing week was capped off by Friday’s announcement that the US military is now investigating claims that 26 civilians were killed when US forces engaged insurgents in a fierce battle in Ramadi on Wednesday. After intense gunfire and a series of air strikes, twelve insurgents were confirmed dead.

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