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Last week, Houzan Mahmoud* opened her e-mail and found a message from Ansar al-Islam, a notoriously brutal Sunni jihadist group. The message read simply, “we will kill you by the middle of March.” Houzan is an outspoken Iraqi feminist. The 34-year-old journalist and women’s rights activist believes that hope for Iraq’s future depends on building a society based on secular democracy and human rights. For this, she has been condemned to death.
Houzan is hardly alone in this regard. Since the US invaded Iraq, women there have endured a wave of death threats, assassinations, abductions, public beatings, targeted sexual assaults, and public hangings. Much of this violence is systematic-directed by both Sunni and Shiite Islamist militias that mushroomed across Iraq after the US toppled the mostly secular Ba’ath regime. We’ve heard about the brutality of the Sunni-based groups, but much less about the Shiite militias that are the armed wings of the political parties that the US boosted into power. Their aim is to establish an Islamist theocracy and their social vision requires the subjugation of women and the elimination of anyone with a competing vision for Iraq’s future.
The “misery gangs” of these Shiite militias now patrol the streets of Iraq’s major cities, attacking women who don’t dress or behave to their liking. In many places, they kill women who wear pants or appear in public without a headscarf. In much of Iraq, women are virtually confined to their homes because of the likelihood of being beaten, raped, or abducted in the streets. As the occupying power, the US was obligated by the Hague and Geneva Conventions to provide security to Iraqi civilians, including protection from violence against women. But the US military, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignored the reign of terror that Islamist militias were imposing on women. In fact, the US enabled these attacks: in 2005, the Pentagon began providing the Shiite Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army with weapons, money, and military training in the hope that these groups would help combat the Sunni-based insurgency.
Today, we are told that the Shiite militias are a threat, that they have used Iraq’s police and security forces to wage a sectarian civil war against Sunnis, and that new formations of radical Shiite groups are attacking US soldiers. Bush’s new Baghdad security plan is aimed in part at reigning in the Mahdi Army in particular, though the group has been systematically torturing and killing women for more than three years.
So, has the Bush Administration finally realized that we shouldn’t be supporting people who assassinate human rights workers and feminists? Hardly. A new covert White House policy exposed last week by journalist Seymour Hersh is funneling money to Sunni jihadist groups like the one that is threatening Houzan Mahmoud. The idea is to use these groups to combat militant Shiite forces allied with Iran and active in Iraq and Lebanon. It’s the same old disastrous logic: support your enemy’s enemy-even if they have ties to Al Qaeda.
Houzan Mahmoud is not surprised by this newest twist in Bush’s “war on terror.” She has seen first-hand that for all its talk of bringing democracy to Iraq, the Bush Administration has traded the rights of more than half of the population-Iraq’s women-for cooperation from the Shiite extremists whom it wagered could deliver stability. With those hopes dashed, the Administration is now backing a different horse-one that is just as woman hating and anti-democratic. As Houzan said, “Perhaps Bush’s speeches about bringing democracy to Iraq made people in the US feel better about the war. But the US has only replaced Saddam’s secular tyranny with an Islamist tyranny. Iraqi women are paying the heaviest price for this and genuine democracy is still a distant dream.”
The next two weeks are bracketed by International Women’s Day and the fourth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Dedicate this period to listening to Iraqi women like Houzan and you will hear a re-telling of the Iraq war-one that amplifies the truth that women’s human rights and democratic rights go hand-in-hand and that the Bush Administration-for all its talk-has only contempt for both.
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.