The international news media is flooded with images of a woman in a pink headscarf recounting a shattering experience of rape by members of the Iraqi National Police. Most of the coverage has focused on her taboo-breaking decision to speak publicly about the assault, but has ignored the context for understanding-and combating-sexual violence by Iraqi security forces.
As Iraqi women’s organizations have documented, sexualized torture is a routine horror in Iraqi jails. While this woman may be the first Iraqi rape survivor to appear on television, she is hardly the first to accuse the Iraqi National Police of sexual assault. At least nine Iraqi organizations (including Women’s Will, Occupation Watch, the Women’s Rights Association , the Iraqi League, the Iraqi National Association of Human Rights, the Human Rights’ Voice of Freedom, the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi National Media and Culture Organization) as well as Amnesty International, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, and the Brussels Tribunal have documented the sexualized torture of Iraqi women while in police custody. And as this case attests, sexual violence is woven into the fabric of the civil war now raging across Iraq. According to Iraqi human rights advocate and writer Haifa Zangana, the first question asked of female detainees in Iraq is, "Are you Sunni or Shia?" The second is, "Are you a virgin?"
Next week, MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, will release a report that documents the widespread use of rape and other forms of torture against women detainees in Iraq by US and Iraqi forces.* The report includes testimonies of numerous rape survivors, collected by the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Since November 2005, OWFI has conducted a Women’s Prison Watch project and has found that, "Torture and rape are common procedure of investigation in police stations run by the militias affiliated with the government, mostly the Mahdi and Badr militias," according to their summer 2006 report.
These are the same sectarian Shiite militias that are prosecuting Iraq’s civil war, the same militias that stepped into the power vacuum created by the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the same militias that have been systematically attacking women in their bid to establish an Islamist theocracy. Since 2003, the political leadership of these militias has been handed control of the Iraqi state by the US, while the militants themselves have waged a campaign of assassinations, rapes, abductions, beheadings, acid attacks, and public beatings targeting women-particularly women who pose a challenge to the project of turning Iraq into a theocracy. As the occupying power in Iraq, the US was obligated under the Hague and Geneva Conventions to provide security to Iraqi civilians, including protection from gender-based violence. But the US military, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the reign of terror that Islamist militias have imposed on women.
By early 2005, as the "cakewalk" envisioned by US war planners devolved into the quagmire that has become the Iraq War, the US began to cultivate Shiite militias to help battle the Sunni-led insurgency. According to Newsweek, the plan was dubbed the "Salvador Option," recalling the Reagan Administration’s use of militias to bolster right-wing regimes in 1980s Central America. But by late 2005, once the Iraqi militias had become notorious as thugs and sectarian death squads, we stopped hearing so much about the military training that these groups had received under the command of Colonel James Steele during John Negroponte’s stint as US Ambassador to Iraq.
Neither have we heard about how the US allowed the government it installed in Baghdad to hand control of the country’s security forces to the militias. Today, the Mahdi Army controls the police forces of Baghdad and Basra , Iraq’s two largest cities. The Badr Brigade is headquartered in Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, which directs the country’s national police, intelligence, and paramilitary units. And the United Nations special investigator on torture is reporting that torture in Iraq is worse now than under Saddam Hussein.
It’s no surprise that we’re hearing allegations of rape against the Iraqi National Police, considering who trained them. DynCorp, the private contractor that the Bush Administration hired to prepare Iraq’s new police force for duty, has an ugly record of violence against women. The company was contracted by the federal government in the 1990s to train police in the Balkans. DynCorp employees were found to have systematically committed sex crimes against women, including "owning" young women as slaves. One DynCorp site supervisor videotaped himself raping two women. Despite strong evidence against them, the contractors never faced criminal charges and are back on the federal payroll.
Contrary to its rhetoric and its international legal obligations, the Bush Administration has refused to protect women’s rights in Iraq. In fact, it has decisively traded women’s rights for cooperation from the Islamists it has helped boost to power. Torture of women by police recruits armed, trained, and funded with US tax dollars is one symptom of this broader crisis.
*Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-based Violence and the US War in Iraq will be available at www.MADRE.org after March 6, 2007. For more information about the report, please contact MADRE at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212.627.0444.
YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.
A shorter version of this article originally ran on TomPaine.com.