June 6, 2004 – Well publicized images of US soldiers torturing and humiliating male Iraqi prisoners may be overshadowing evidence gathered by several human rights groups and Pentagon investigators indicating US military personnel have raped and sexually abused Iraqi women held at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities.
Amal Kadham Swadi, an Iraqi attorney representing women detainees, told The Guardian she believes that sexualized violence and abuse committed by US soldiers against female prisoners goes far beyond a few isolated cases. Itâ€™s "happening all across Iraq," she said.
Women make up a small minority of the total number of Iraqis held by Coalition forces. The US military says 78 women are currently detained by occupation militaries throughout Iraq.
It is not clear, however, exactly how many women the US and its allies have detained since the invasion last year. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 30 Iraqi women were housed in Abu Ghraib last October. That number was reduced to five last month, and finally to zero as of May 29, according to the military.
Like the majority of male prisoners, many of the women detained by Coalition forces have not been charged with any crime. Iraqi human rights groups say they are likely being used as "bargaining chips" against family members wanted by Coalition forces, Newsday reports.
Swadi and six other female Iraqi lawyers began investigating claims of sexual assault late last year after a note reportedly written by a prisoner named Noor was smuggled out of Abu Ghraib. The note claimed that US soldiers were raping female detainees, and in some cases, such as that of Noor herself, getting them pregnant. Swadi then began interviewing detainees who said they too had been assaulted or had witnessed assaults, The Guardian reports.
During a visit to Abu Ghraib in March, Swadi said, one of the prisoners told her US soldiers had forced her to undress in front of them, an act that would be seen as particularly demeaning in conservative Muslim culture. At another detention facility in Baghdad, Swadi encountered a woman who said soldiers raped her. "She was the only woman who would talk about her case," Swadi told The Guardian. "She was crying. She told us she had been raped," Swadi said. "Several American soldiers had raped her. She had tried to fight them off and they had hurt her arm. She showed us the stitches."
Iman Khamas, head of the International Occupation Watch Center, an organization investigating human rights abuses under the US-led occupation, said a former detainee told her about the rape of a cellmate at Abu Ghraib, according to Middle East Online. On another occasion, a woman whispered cautiously to Khamas -- even though no one else was in the room -- intimating that soldiers had raped her at Abu Ghraib. A day later, Khamas said, the woman returned and asked her to tear up the statement.
According to Khamas, Swadi and others who are investigating assault cases, few women in Muslim cultures will come forward since they know rape survivors are often treated with shame and are sometimes killed as a means of preserving family honor.
Khamas and two other human rights workers have all said separately that three young rural women from the Sunni Muslim region of Al-Anbar, west of Baghdad, had been killed by their families after coming out of Abu Ghraib pregnant, Middle East Online reported.
The Pentagon has acknowledged, in an internal report by Army Major General Antonio Taguba, that US soldiers videotaped and photographed naked female detainees at Abu Ghraib. Photographs taken by US soldiers and shown to members of Congress, but not yet made public, reportedly depict at least one Iraqi woman being forced at gunpoint to show her breasts.
The Taguba report also cites a case of rape at Abu Ghraib, although Taguba described the incident as a male prison guard "having sex" with a female detainee.
Referring to rapes at that very prison, the militaryâ€™s chief spokesperson in Iraq, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, told Agence France Presse that the department running prisons was "unaware of any such reports at Abu Ghraib."
The military has not yet charged any soldiers for a specific case of assault or abuse involving a female detainee.
Another Pentagon report indicates that three soldiers from military intelligence were alleged to have sexually assaulted a female detainee at Abu Ghraib last October. Army investigators did not confirm the assault. The three soldiers were reportedly fined several hundred dollars each and demoted for having been in the prisonâ€™s female wing without permission, according to the Washington Post.