Investigators believe a group of U.S. soldiers suspected of raping an Iraqi woman, then killing her and three members of her family plotted the attack for nearly a week, a U.S. military official said Saturday.
Up to five soldiers are being investigated in the March killings, the fifth pending case involving alleged slayings of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops.
The Americans entered the Sunni Arab's family home, separated three males from the woman, raped her and burned her body using a flammable liquid in a cover-up attempt, a military official close to the investigation said. The three males were also slain.
The soldiers had studied their victims for about a week and the attack was "totally premeditated," the official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing. The family had just moved into the home in the insurgent-riddled area around Mahmoudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad.
The U.S. military issued a terse statement about the killings Friday, saying only that Maj. Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, ordered a criminal investigation into the alleged slaying of a family of four in Mahmoudiya.
U.S. officials said they knew of the deaths but thought the victims were killed in sectarian violence. But Mahmoudiya police Capt. Ihsan Abdul-Rahman said Iraqi officials received a report on March 13 alleging that American soldiers had killed the family in the Khasir Abyad area, about 6 miles north of Mahmoudiya.
There were some discrepancies over how many soldiers were being investigated. The U.S. military official said it was at least four. Two other U.S. officials said Friday that five were under investigation but one already had been discharged for unspecified charges unrelated to the killings and was believed to be in the United States.
The four still in the Army have had their weapons taken away and were confined to a U.S. base near Mahmoudiya, officials said. If convicted of premeditated murder, the soldiers could receive a death sentence under U.S. military law.
The suspects were from the 502nd Infantry Regiment and belonged to the same platoon as two soldiers kidnapped and killed south of Baghdad this month, another official close to the investigation said Friday. The soldiers' mutilated bodies were found June 19, three days after they were abducted by insurgents near Youssifiyah southwest of Baghdad.
The military has said one and possibly both of the slain soldiers were tortured and beheaded. The official said the mutilation of the slain soldiers stirred feelings of guilt and led at least one member of the platoon to reveal the rape-slaying on June 22.
One soldier was arrested after admitting his role in the alleged attack on the family, the official said on condition of anonymity because the case was under way. The official said the rape and killings appeared to have been a "crime of opportunity," noting that the soldiers had not been attacked by insurgents but had noticed the woman on previous patrols.
One of the family members they allegedly killed was a child, said a senior Army official who also requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The senior official said the alleged incident was first revealed by a soldier during a routine counseling-type session. The official said that soldier did not witness the incident but heard about it.
A second soldier, who also was not involved, said he overhead soldiers conspiring to commit the crimes and then later saw bloodstains on their clothes, the official said.
The allegations of rape could generate a particularly strong backlash in Iraq, a conservative, strongly religious society in which many women will not even shake hands with men who are not close relatives.
The case is among the most serious against U.S. soldiers allegedly involved in the deaths of Iraqi civilians. At least 14 U.S. troops have been convicted.
Last week, seven Marines and one Navy medic were charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of an Iraqi man near Fallujah west of Baghdad.
U.S. officials are also investigating allegations thatU.S. Marines killed two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians Nov. 19 in the western town of Haditha in a revenge attack after a fellow Marine died in a roadside bombing.
Other cases involve the deaths of three male detainees in Salahuddin province in May, the shooting death of an unarmed Iraqi man near Ramadi in February and the death of an Iraqi soldier after an interrogation at a detention camp in Qaim in 2003