BAGHDAD -- The US military yesterday weighed into the politically explosive case of a Sunni woman allegedly raped last weekend by three Iraqi police officers, announcing its own investigation after the Shi'ite-run government dismissed her allegations as false.
The announcement, made to reporters by the chief US military spokesman, appeared aimed at containing the growing political storm. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's exoneration of the three officers after an investigation lasting less than a day has enflamed Sunni-Shi'ite tensions over a case that strikes at the heart of Iraqi attitudes toward protection of women.
Maliki, a Shi'ite, stoked the political flames further yesterday by firing a top Sunni official who called for an international investigation into the woman's allegations, which were broadcast Monday by satellite television stations across the Middle East.
Rape is considered not only an assault on the victim but a grave offense against her entire family and community. The allegations harked back to the dark years of Saddam Hussein's rule, when wives and daughters were raped in front of their husbands and fathers to exact confessions from the men.
Maliki insists the charge was fabricated by Sunni politicians and extremists to discredit the police and the ongoing security crackdown in Baghdad. He announced a "reward" for the officers who were implicated.
Regardless of the truth, many Sunnis considered the government's speed in clearing the three men as an insult to their community.
With the issue threatening to spiral out of control, the US military said General David Petraeus, the new top US commander in Iraq, had ordered his own probe, appointing an American officer to begin collecting evidence.
"Once the Iraqi government makes a decision on how they are going to move forward, there is an investigating judicial process established and they need this information from us, we will make that readily available to them," said the chief military spokesman, Major General William B. Caldwell.
The 20-year-old woman told Arabic-language television stations that she was detained Sunday by Iraqi police at her west Baghdad home and was accused of aiding Sunni insurgents.
She was then taken to a police garrison where she was raped before US soldiers arrived and took her away, she said.
Caldwell confirmed that "an Iraqi woman" was brought to the US-run hospital Sunday evening and released the following morning but refused to give further details or talk about her treatment.
Iraqi women rarely report rape because of shame and fear of public scorn. Some officials, including Sunnis, discounted the woman's allegation simply because she came forward publicly.
"What has been said about the woman's rape seems like a fantasy," said Aida Osayran, a Sunni lawmaker and member of parliament's Human Rights Committee. "It is certain that what she says is improper because it is not in our customs and traditions."