Televised Rape Claim Threatens to Add Fuel to Iraqi Sectarian Violence

A shocking televised accusation of rape by a 20-year-old Iraqi woman and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's firing Wednesday of a top minister who demanded an investigation is threatening to worsen the sectarian violence tearing apart the country.

The woman, a Sunni, appeared Monday night on Al Jazeera satellite television and described in graphic detail — almost unheard of for an Islamic audience — how three members of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Police allegedly kidnapped and sexually assaulted her.

The charge brought an immediate call for an investigation from prominent Sunnis in al-Maliki's fragile, Shiite-dominated government, led by Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the Sunni Endowments. Al-Samaraie's organization cares for Sunni mosques and shrines in Iraq.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, announced Wednesday that al-Samaraie was fired. No reason was given.

Al-Samaraie, speaking from Amman in neighboring Jordan, disputed al-Maliki's right to fire him, arguing that only Iraq's Presidential Council — which comprises President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies — has that authority.

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Al-Samaraie said the young woman who went public with her rape allegations was one of many claiming to have been sexually assaulted by the security forces.

"Many girls are raped but they refuse to appear in the media so as not to tarnish their reputations," he said.

The woman said she was assaulted Sunday at a police garrison where she was taken on suspicion of helping Sunni insurgents.

Although the woman did not say her attackers were Shiites, many Sunnis associate the police with the rival sect.

The accusations brought immediate condemnation from Sunni leaders across the war-torn nation, with counter charges by Shiite leaders who claimed the woman was part of a conspiracy aimed at smearing al-Maliki and the Shiite members of his government, according to a report in the New York Times.

The dramatic and graphic description of the alleged assault was broadcast to millions of Iraqis — and Muslems across the Middle East — adding fuel to an already explosive Sunni-Shiite sectarian relationship.

Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman, confirmed that the woman was admitted Sunday to a U.S.-run medical facility and was released the next day. He refused to divulge details of her medical treatment or examination, saying she left the hospital with her medical reports.

Al-Maliki on Monday promised to investigate the case and punish any police officers found to be involved in the alleged attack, but on Tuesday he reversed himself and released what he said was a medical report indicating no signs of rape.

In his Tuesday statement, al-Maliki also said the woman had three outstanding warrants against her for unspecified charges. He also accused "certain parties" — a thinly veiled reference to Sunni politicians — of fabricating the allegation.

The prime minister claimed his critics were attemptiong to discredit the security forces and undermine a major, U.S.-led Baghdad crackdown. He went on to exonerate the three officers, saying they should be rewarded as a sign of confidence in the force.

Al-Samaraie said Monday the rape allegations offered what he called proof of the failure of the security push in Baghdad to protect the city's residents.

"The Sunni Endowments strongly denounces this horrific crime and lets out a cry for help from the international community and human rights organizations, demanding that they launch an immediate investigation into this crime," said the statement, signed by al-Samaraie.

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Rape is considered especially heinous in conservative Muslim countries, and victims rarely come forward since they risk not only public scorn but possible "honor killing" at the hands of male relations seeking to restore the family's honor.

The speed with which the officers were exonerated outraged many Sunnis at a time when sectarian tensions are high.

"A succession of past governments that ruled Iraq destroyed their enemies and rivals within days or months. But the governments that ruled in the past four years are killing the Iraqi people," Sunni lawmaker Abdul-Nasser al-Janabi told Al-Jazeera television late Tuesday.

In a statement posted on the Web, a major Sunni insurgent group — the Islamic Army in Iraq — declared "we will not sleep or be satisfied until we avenge you and every free woman who was stripped of her virtue and dignity." The authenticity of the statement could not be confirmed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.