BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sunni Arab clerics on Friday demanded justice for two women who claim they were sexually assaulted by the Shiite-dominated security forces, and several insurgent groups called for revenge attacks.
In the capital's Abu Hanifa mosque, Sunni Islam's holiest shrine in Iraq, Sheik Sameer al-Obeidi charged that the allegations showed that "gross human rights violations" were marring a major security sweep in Baghdad and demanded that women be treated with respect during the operations.
"No arrests of women, no rape of women and no nighttime raids," he demanded.
Another Sunni imam, Sheik Jamaleddin al-Kobeisi, preaching at al-Shawaf mosque in the capital's Yarmouk district, sought to steer his sermon from the Shiite-Sunni divide, saying Sunnis did not wish to see the rape allegations fuel sectarian violence and only wanted justice for the victims.
"The proud among us believe that killing all of Iraq's men is easier to accept than violating the honor of one Iraqi woman," he told worshippers.
Both rape allegations were made in TV interviews -- unusual in Iraq, where the crime is rarely reported or discussed -- and they have increased pressure on the Iraqi government in its fight against the enduring Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence.
The Al Qaeda in Iraq leader, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has purportedly called on his followers to step up attacks on Iraqi security forces to avenge the alleged rapes in Baghdad and the northern town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border.
"Go ahead with Allah's blessing and engulf their checkpoints in fire, destroy their homes, and spill their blood to flow as streams," he said in an audiotape released Thursday.
He also claimed 300 followers have volunteered for suicide missions within hours of hearing news of the alleged rape in Baghdad, which the woman said took place in a police garrison.
The authenticity of the tape could not be immediately verified, but the voice sounded like al-Masri's and it appeared on Web sites commonly used by the militant groups.
At least six groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, have called for revenge since the first rape claim was made Monday, according to IntelCenter, a U.S. group that tracks extremist messages.
The rape allegations by Sunni Arab women, particularly that of a 20-year-old who said she was raped by three policemen last weekend, have angered Sunnis and threatened to undermine the reputation of the Iraqi forces that Washington hopes can soon take over from U.S. and allied forces so they can go home.
Sunni Arab politicians opposed to the Shiite-led government have seized on the charges, the latest made Thursday by a 50-year-old woman from Tal Afar, asserting that they know of hundreds of similar but unpublicized cases.
Harith al-Dhari, the head of the hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, told Iraq's Al-Sharqiya television that he knew of hundreds of rapes in the past two years.
The woman who made the initial allegations was taken to a U.S.-run medical facility Sunday, the day she said she was raped, and released the next day.
The U.S. military has said evidence in the case was being preserved so it could be provided to Iraqis as deemed appropriate, and Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Friday a release would depend on what the Iraqis need for legal proceedings.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has exonerated the three policemen accused in the alleged Baghdad rape following an investigation that lasted less than a day. He accused Sunni politicians of fabricating the allegation to undermine support for the security forces during the ongoing Baghdad crackdown. Some Shiite lawmakers said the three included two Sunni Arabs.
The alleged victim in the latest case appeared on Al-Jazeera to recount her ordeal when her house was raided Feb. 8 by Iraqi soldiers looking for insurgents and arms.
She said she was raped when she did not give the soldiers information they sought on insurgents in the area and that one of them recorded the alleged attack with a cell phone video camera.
Tal Afar Mayor Nijm Abdullah said four soldiers were accused in the case. He said a fifth soldier suspected something was wrong, rushed into the house and forced the others at gunpoint to stop the assault. He refused to say whether the soldiers were Shiites or Sunnis, saying only that they came from the mainly Shiite south.
President Jalal Talabani has appealed for calm, saying the courts were the only place where such cases should be settled.
"Today, we need to trust one another and avoid whatever shakes that trust, stokes sensitivities or fill hearts with malice," Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, said in a statement.