Was There Rape? Depends on Whether You're Shiite or Sunni

ByABC News

Feb. 19, 2007— -- A woman claims she was raped. She takes the extraordinary step of going on television to tell her story. The prime minister said she's a liar. Her religious sect said she's a victim. A government official said it's a paid propaganda campaign. In Iraq today it's come to this: A woman's body is a sectarian battlefield.

She identified herself as Sabreen al Janabi, and she's from a prominent Sunni tribe. She is now the focal point of religious tensions in Iraq ever since she appeared on television accusing Iraqi police of raping her.

In interviews with the Arab television network al Jazeera and The Associated Press, al Janabi described being beaten and raped by members of the Iraqi military. While describing the rape, she said, "I couldn't imagine that an Iraqi could dare to do that."

In Iraq, the government and the police are predominantly Shiite, while the alleged rape victim belongs to a prominent Sunni tribe.

Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office has discredited al Janabi's claims. A spokesperson for the prime minister's office said she is wanted by the authorities and that a medical test has established that she was not raped.

In the meantime, Sami al Askari, an aide to Maliki, has criticized the rape claims and the offense the airing of the rape allegations on television has brought to Iraq's conservative sensibilities.

An Iraqi government source also told ABC News that al Janabi recanted and has now said that she was never raped. He also said she admitted to being paid for an interview with the the Arab television network al Jazeera.

The source also suggested that al Jazeera's interview was part of a "conspiracy" meant to "manipulate the security plan." He said the Iraqi government is now investigating "who paid who and who paid what." The source said "there is a great effort by the bad guys to tell the world that this [plan] is not working."

"Operation imposing law" is a new security plan currently in effect in Iraq. This plan is widely considered a last-ditch effort to rescue Iraq from sectarian war.

Sunni leaders in Iraq, however, are speaking out in defense of the alleged victim and are refusing to accept the government's claims that she has been lying or has been paid to make the rape allegations.

In a phone interview with ABC News Mahmood al-Mashadani, the Sunni speaker of of the Iraqi parliament appeared to validate the woman's rape claims. He condemned the act, saying that Maliki should take action. In his view, "This happened because there's a problem in the Islamic leadership in Iraq." He also said that this did not bode well for Iraq and that he expected the worst, "if things continue the same way."

The Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni coalition in Iraq, is scheduled to hold a press conference tomorrow. It is expected to dispute Maliki's statements, including the results of the medical test.

According to The Associated Press, Omar al-Jubori al-Hashemi, an aide to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, has already disputed the government's claims and is accusing Maliki's office of being hasty in exonerating the police officers.

In Iraq's conservative Islamic society, rape carries a huge stigma, often leading to the raped woman being ostracized, with shame brought on her family. It is rare for women to ever go public with such allegations of rape.

So why would an Iraqi woman go on television to make these charges? Is she taking a stand? Is she lying to fuel the violence. Or is she being exploited? Like so many things in Iraq these days, it is complicated and all about religion, tribe and the struggle for dominance.

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