Iraqi Women Targeted by Campaign of Violence

Police accuse religious extremists of a recent wave of murders.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 3:43 PM

BAGHDAD, Nov. 15, 2007 — -- Today's brutal murder of the headmistress of an all-girls high school in northwest Baghdad is sparking new fears that women are again being targeted by religious extremists in Iraq.

Police found the body of Suad Kokaz, head of the Amil High School for Girls, outside her home in the relatively safe Shiite area of Kadhimiyah. She was ambushed by gunmen after leaving her home for work, according to police.

Amil High School has become a haven for Shiite Muslim students fleeing with their families from the religious segregation that has pulled apart many of Baghdad's neighborhoods since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Police tell ABC News that they are still searching for a motive in the attack.

The murder is the second in as many weeks of a Baghdad schoolteacher. Last week authorities found the body of a woman teacher not far from her school in the Al-Saydiyah area in southeast Baghdad. Both killings are raising concerns among law enforcement officials that extremists are stepping up attacks against women.

Police in the southern city of Basra report a sharp increase in attacks on women, with more than 40 killed between July and September, according to Maj. Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf, Basra's chief of police.

Khalaf told ABC News that dozens of women are threatened and intimidated each month, mostly by self-styled enforcers of religious law who target females who wear Western clothes or appear in public without head scarves. Khalaf, who was sent to Basra earlier this year by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to impose order in the city, says police are often too scared to conduct proper investigations into the killings.

"These people are simply acting as gangs," Khalaf told ABC News. "This kind of violence cannot be tolerated."

Before the invasion, Iraqi women had rights enshrined in the country's constitution since 1959 that were among the broadest of any Arab or Islamic nation. The new constitution says that women are equal under the law; critics, however, have condemned a provision that says no law can contradict the "established rulings" of Islam as weakening women's rights.

The vigilantes patrol the streets of some cities on motorbikes or in cars with dark-tinted windows and no license plates. They accost or harass women who aren't wearing the traditional robe and head scarf known as the hijab. Religious extremists also have been known to attack men for clothes or even haircuts deemed too Western.