TIKRIT, Iraq – U.S. investigators have asked Iraqi authorities to help them navigate cultural sensitivities to exhume the body of a teenager allegedly raped and murdered with her family by American soldiers, a military official said Saturday.
U.S. Maj. Mark Wright said U.S. authorities are aware that Islamic tradition has strict rules governing exhumation and could require religious leaders to become involved in the investigation.
"You want to be aware of these cultural issues while at the same time making sure that the accused receives proper justice," Wright, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, told The Associated Press.
Muslim tradition generally frowns on exhumations, considering them desecration of the remains.
However, Ahmed Taha, the uncle of the dead teen, told AP Thursday that relatives were eager to cooperate with investigators and would allow them to exhume the body of the alleged rape victim, Abeer Qassim Hamza. Her parents and sister were also slain.
Ex-soldier Steven D. Green was arrested last week in North Carolina and has pleaded not guilty to one count of rape and four counts of murder.
Four soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment have been taken to a U.S. military camp in Baghdad for questioning, Wright said. He would not say if those soldiers had been arrested, but another U.S. official said Saturday that several more soldiers would soon be charged. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Based on interviews and records, the U.S. military now believes woman Green is accused of raping and killing was between the ages of 14 and 20, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Friday. While the military initially said she was 20, Boyce said he has seen documents that indicate she could have been about 14.
Wright said officials are also considering whether certain parts of a standard Western autopsy would be taboo in Iraq and if a religious leader or family members should be present to ensure cultural barriers are not crossed.
He said U.S. military commanders in Iraq are working with the family's relatives to expedite the investigation, but that it was not immediately clear whether Iraqis or Americans would have custody of the woman's remains.
U.S. officials are concerned that the alleged rape-slaying, which occurred March 12 near Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, will strain relations with the new U.S.-backed government and increase calls for changes in the agreement that exempts American soldiers from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded an independent investigation into the case, which followed a series of allegations that U.S. troops killed and mistreated Iraqi civilians.
According to an FBI affidavit, Green and at least two others targeted the teenager and her family for a week before the attack, which wasn't revealed until witnesses came forward in late June.
The soldiers drank alcohol, abandoned their checkpoint, changed clothes to avoid detection and headed to the victims' house, about 200 yards from a U.S. military checkpoint in the so-called "Triangle of Death", a Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad known for its violence, the affidavit said.
In the week since the allegations came to light, the military has remained tightlipped even amid growing cries by Iraqi leaders for a fair investigation.
President Bush, speaking on a cable news show last Thursday, said the Iraqis should understand that the allegations will be handled "in a very transparent upfront way."
"People will be held to account if these charges are true," Bush said.
In the chow halls and barracks, many soldiers remain convinced that the alleged rape and killings in Mahmoudiya were aberrations and that most American service members respect the rules of war.
"These crimes are against all the Army values, so if you don't any of those values, you shouldn't even call yourself a soldier," said Staff Sgt. Ahmand Brown, 28, of Flint, Mich.
In the aftermath of claims that Marines in killed civilians in the western town of Haditha in November, the U.S. military in Iraq ordered all personnel to undergo values training.
The Army has also paid greater attention to its rules of engagements, which determine when a soldier can use deadly force. But a bad soldier is a bad soldier, no matter the training, Brown said.
Green, who served 11 months with the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., received an honorable discharge and left the army in mid-May. He was discharged because of an "anti-social personality disorder," according to military officials and court documents.
But even before the rape-murder allegation surfaced, the military was investigating an incident in which three soldiers from the same battalion were killed by insurgents near Youssifiyah. Two of them apparently were abducted and slain, with their bodies mutilated.
U.S. officials insist they have no evidence that the incidents are related.