2 American Officials Apologize for Crime
By EDWARD WONG
Published: July 7, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 6 — The United States ambassador and the top American
military commander here together issued an unusual apology on Thursday for
the rape and murder of a young Iraqi woman and the killing of her family,
saying that the crime, in which at least four soldiers are suspects, had
injured the "Iraqi people as a whole."
The statement came just hours after Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said
at a news conference that he might ask the American military to scrap a rule
granting foreign soldiers here immunity from Iraqi prosecution. Such a move
would be a direct rebuke to the Bush administration, which has fought
tenaciously to ensure that American soldiers are exempt from local or
international laws when serving on foreign soil.
"I'm about to talk to the multinational forces to reach solutions that will
put an end to such practices," Mr. Maliki said of criminal behavior by
soldiers. One possible course of action, he said, would be to "revise the
issue of immunity."
"Our people cannot tolerate that every day there is an ugly crime such as
that in Mahmudiya," he added, referring to the market town near which the
four Iraqis, including a young girl, were killed on March 12.
Mr. Maliki's assertion, which followed similar remarks he made in Kuwait on
Wednesday, signaled the growing furor within the Iraqi government over the
latest crime. The incident first became public last week, when the Fourth
Infantry Division announced that it was investigating the involvement of
American soldiers in the rape and slayings.
The rise in political tensions came as sectarian violence continued in Iraq.
A suicide car bomber rammed his sedan into a Shiite shrine in the holy town
of Kufa, killing at least 12 people, including five Iranians, and injuring
dozens, Iraqi officials said. Iraqi and American forces have generally
maintained tight security around the southern holy sites of Najaf and Kufa,
to which Shiite pilgrims, including many Iranians, flock by the thousands.
The strongly worded apology issued Thursday night by the top American
commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad
revealed the deep concern among American officials over the criminal
episode's potential to damage the entire American project in Iraq.
"We understand this is painful, confusing and disturbing, not only to the
family who lost a loved one, but to the Iraqi people as a whole," the two
senior officials said in a written statement. "The loss of a family member
can never be undone. The alleged events of that day are absolutely
inexcusable and unacceptable behavior."
The statement is all the more unusual because no soldiers have been
convicted yet or even formally charged. On Monday, a recently discharged
Army private, Steven D. Green, 21, was arrested in North Carolina on
suspicion of rape and murder. Three soldiers, some of whom are reported to
have admitted their roles in the crime to investigators, are confined to
base in Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, and their weapons have been
Mr. Green was moved Thursday to Louisville, Ky., where, in a half-hour
hearing in which he pleaded not guilty, a federal judge ordered continued
detention for him. Prosecutors said that Mr. Green, who was discharged from
the Army in May before his suspected role in the case was discovered, is
scheduled to be arraigned on Aug. 8 in Paducah, Ky.
The mayor of Mahmudiya, Mouayid Fadhil, said in a telephone interview on
Thursday that American military investigators wanted to dig up the victims'
bodies. But Iraq's Justice Ministry must first determine whether exhumation
is allowed under Koranic law, he said. The victims' relatives are also
reluctant to divulge the burial site out of shame over the fact that one of
the dead, a girl as young as 15, was reported to have been raped by at least
two American soldiers, the mayor said.
Sexual assault is considered one of the most heinous and shameful crimes in
Muslim society; even mentioning the subject is often considered taboo. "We
don't want to talk about this," Mr. Fadhil said. "She was raped."
The debate over exhuming the bodies could complicate the military
investigation. American military officials declined on Thursday to talk
about specifics of the investigation, but prosecutors undoubtedly want
detailed forensic evidence to build as strong a case as possible against the
suspects. The victims were examined by doctors at the local hospital months
ago before being buried, Mr. Fadhil said, but the Americans want to check
the corpses for themselves.
The victim in the suspected rape was Abeer Qassim Hamzeh. The others killed
were her younger sister, father and mother, Mr. Fadhil said.
The case is one of at least five in which the military is investigating or
prosecuting soldiers in the killings of unarmed Iraqi civilians. Four were
announced in June alone. The Mahmudiya case is the only one that involves
the rape of an Iraqi, making it especially incendiary.
In another case, in which marines are suspected of killing 24 Iraqi
civilians in Haditha last November, the second-ranking American officer in
Iraq, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, has completed his review of an inquiry
into whether Marine officers tried to cover up the shootings and is expected
to announce his findings and recommendations in the next few days, said two
military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the
findings have not been made public.
Mr. Maliki said at the news conference on Thursday that the Iraqi government
would conduct its own inquiry into the Mahmudiya crime.
But Iraqi courts have no power to prosecute the soldiers. An order issued
under the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq
after the American invasion until June 2004, said that foreign troops,
missions and their consultants here are immune from Iraqi law. Orders issued
by an occupational authority usually expire when the authority leaves, but
the Iraqi Constitution has extended the decrees.
Mr. Fadhil said that a committee of local officials was prepared to carry
out its own criminal investigation but was awaiting orders from the national
government. "Now, the subject has many dimensions," he said. "It's become an
Complicating matters, "the family doesn't want to say where the bodies are,"
he added. "The family didn't involve the police when the crime took place.
We found out about it only when the Americans revealed it."
The American military began its investigation after a soldier described the
crime in a counseling session in late June and said he had been involved.
American soldiers were notified by Iraqis of the crime on March 12, the day
it took place, military officials said. But the Iraqis who had stumbled on
the bodies had speculated that other Iraqis had done the killing, since the
area is a caldron of sectarian violence. So the Americans did not think of
investigating then, officials said.
A senior American commander in Mahmudiya visited Mr. Fadhil and other local
officials on Thursday and "expressed sorrow for the killing of the family
and the behavior of the soldiers," Mr. Fadhil said.
He added that the local investigative committee intended to examine the
victims' home. The American soldiers are accused of trying to cover up the
crime by burning both the body of Ms. Hamzeh and the house. But the body was
sufficiently intact for local doctors to find multiple bullet wounds, Mr.
The violence in Iraq on Thursday threatened to ignite further sectarian
bloodletting. The suicide car bomb in Kufa had been following two buses
carrying Iranian pilgrims and was detonated when the pilgrims disembarked,
said Capt. Salem Ghanem, the assistant director of tourist security in Najaf,
which adjoins Kufa. Iraqi vendors who had gathered around the pilgrims were
among the victims.
The explosion ripped into the two buses and left behind pools of blood,
shredded shoes and bags with food that the pilgrims had been carrying.
Officials in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Kufa are hoping that
religious tourism will help strengthen the local economy.
In Baghdad, two car bombs exploded near a high school, killing at least
three people and injuring six. Gunmen in the town of Musayyib shot up a
minivan, killing two girls who were just 4 and 6 years-old. Police found two
bodies in the insurgent stronghold of Hawija; both the victims had been
handcuffed and tortured.
In his afternoon news conference, Mr. Maliki said that the government has
decided to ban all political activity on university campuses because of
He also said that a police force with thousands of members assigned to
protect government buildings and other installations was filled with
criminals and murderers. The declaration was an unusually blunt
acknowledgment of the corruption that has plagued the Iraqi security forces.
"It didn't really protect the ministries," he said of the force, called the
Facilities Protection Service. "On the contrary, it turned into a partner in
Reporting for this article was contributed by Mona Mahmoud in Baghdad, Iraqi
employees of The New York Times in Najaf and Kirkuk, and David S. Cloud and
Eric Schmitt from Washington.