BASRA, Iraq – The brutal crimes struck a nerve, even in a country that has seen a horrific amount of bloodshed in the past decade: Young Iraqi girls kidnapped, repeatedly raped and then bludgeoned to death in two separate incidents near the southern city of Basra.
Despite a conviction in one case, a handful of arrests in the other and beefed up police patrols in the city, families in Basra remain on edge following the murders of 4-year-old Banin Haider and 5-year-old Abeer Ali in a span of less than two months.
Now, many parents in and around the city won't let their children go to school alone or even play outside after class is out, fearing their daughters, too, could be snatched off the streets, sexually abused and murdered. Others are making plans to leave Basra altogether, saying they have lost confidence in the security forces' ability to keep children safe.
"These inhuman crimes make me think of the safety of my children," said Hazim Sharif, 38, a government employee and father of four. "I do not trust the security forces any more. I have to protect my family by myself."
To many in Iraq, the murders mark a new, more menacing type of violence than the country has previously encountered — at least in public.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is considerably safer than Baghdad, and the recent attacks are seen as a particularly dark spot on an otherwise relatively quiet and stable province. The city of about 1 million and its surrounding province, which goes by the same name, is Iraq's main oil industry hub. The region is generally poorer and shabbier than the capital, but it is slowly beginning to flourish as international companies move in, attracted by the region's lucrative oil fields.
Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Faisal al-Ibadi and the head of the security committee in nearby Zubair, Mahdi Rikan, provided detailed accounts of the two cases to The Associated Press.
Banin was kidnapped Aug. 16 in Zubair, a rundown town just outside the city of Basra. Her family, from the nearby province of Dhi Qar, had come to town to visit relatives.
Police later found her body in a derelict area with her hands and legs bound. She was raped multiple times, and her head was smashed by what was believed to be a large brick, according to authorities.
An off-duty soldier assigned to a nearby army base, Akram al-Mayahi, was arrested in connection with the Banin's murder. He was found guilty on Oct. 22 and sentenced to death for abusing and killing the girl, said judge Jassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Basra Federal Appeals Court.
Banin's family wants al-Mayahi to be executed publically at the scene of the crime as a deterrent, al-Ibadi said. The sentence has yet to be carried out.
The other young girl, Abeer, also came from Dhi Qar province, a relatively poor part of Iraq that many residents travel from in search of work, often for weeks at a time. She was abducted Oct. 11 while her family attended a wedding not far from the scene of Banin's murder.
Her body was found 12 hours later in an empty lot, bearing similar signs of trauma to the previous victim, though Abeer was also strangled with a shoelace, officials said.
Authorities later determined that the suspected kidnapper phoned nine friends and invited them to take part in the rape. So far, eight people have been arrested and have confessed. The case has yet to go to trial because the investigation is still under way. Authorities believe the soldier convicted in Banin's killing is not connected to Abeer's murder.
"I cannot rest or sleep while these criminals are still eating, drinking and sleeping in prison. They should be executed immediately," said Abeer's father, Ali Abid, a 30-year-old construction worker and father of four other daughters. "Iraq has become like a jungle where monsters maul the bodies of the poor people."
Reports of the two cases have sent a wave of fear through the streets of Basra.
Firas Khudier, 42, a businessman in Zubair, stopped sending his daughter Shahad to kindergarten out of fear she could be abducted. In the meantime, he has hired a taxi driven by a trusted relative to take his two older children to school even though it is nearby.
Sharif, a father of four, said he and his wife have begun escorting their children to school and back, and are keeping a closer eye on them even when they play just outside the house. Most parents in Basra are now doing the same, he added.
"They keep ... insisting on going out to play with their friends, but we have to remind them of the horrific story of the two poor girls," Sharif said.
In an attempt to calm public opinion, security forces have started deploying more police patrols, particularly near schools.
Some officials blame a rise in drug use for the crimes. Iraq's Interior Ministry recently cited the cases in calling on Iraqis to support an anti-narcotics campaign. Al-Ibadi said all of those arrested in the two cases are addicts who were under the influence at the time of the crimes.
Fawzia A. al-Attia, a sociologist at Baghdad University, said Iraq's decades of war and economic hardship also likely played a role.
"All these woes changed the social value system, weakened the role of the family and negatively influenced personality development," she said. "Young people in particular have started to feel the emptiness and boredom of unemployment, and (are increasingly disappointed) with religious and political institutions."
Many Basra residents see the focus on drugs as misplaced. They instead criticize Iraq's government and security forces for failing to provide adequate security.
Abid said blaming his daughter's killers' actions on drugs is just a way for the authorities to justify poor policing, saying that all the security forces care "about is the salary they get at the end of the month."
Juhi reported from Baghdad.