Two dead soldiers, eight more to go, vow avengers of Iraqi girl's rape
By Akeel Hussein in Mahmoudiyah and Colin Freeman
The American soldiers accused of raping an Iraqi girl and then murdering her and her family may have provoked an insurgent revenge plot in which two of their comrades were abducted and beheaded last month, it has been claimed.
Pte Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Pte Thomas Tucker, 25, were snatched from a checkpoint near the town of Yusufiyah on June 16 in what was thought at the time to be random terrorist retaliation for the killing of the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an American air strike two days earlier.
Private Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker were beheaded
Now, however, residents of the neighbouring town of Mahmoudiyah have told The Sunday Telegraph that their kidnap was carried out to avenge the attack on a local girl Abeer Qassim Hamza, 15, and her family. They claim that insurgents have vowed to kidnap and kill another eight American troops to exact a 10-to-one revenge for the rape and murder of the girl.
Last Monday Steven Green, 21, a former private recently discharged from the US Army, appeared in an American federal court on murder and rape charges relating to her death. At least four other soldiers still based in Iraq are also under investigation.
Prosecutors alleged that Green and others entered the home of a family of civilians, where he killed the girl's parents and young sister, raped the teenager along with another soldier then shot her in the head. The bodies were found burnt in an apparent cover-up attempt last March. US commanders initially thought the killings were the work of insurgents.
The case, potentially the most serious by far of the various abuse charges facing American troops in Iraq, was investigated only after another soldier - shaken by the deaths of Menchaca and Tucker - revealed in a counselling session that US troops might have been involved.
US army officials have already begun a separate inquiry into possible links between the two cases, although they insist at this stage that it is purely "speculation". However, locals in Mahmoudiyah, a Sunni market town in the heart of the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad, say relatives of the dead girl's family with contacts to insurgent groups asked them to take a "blood for blood" revenge.
Because of the sensitivities in Arab society about reporting sexual crimes, they were unwilling to press either the US army or the Iraqi police to deal with the case through the courts.
Saba Shukr, 44, a Sunni sheikh at al-Aziz mosque in Mahmoudiyah, said: "We knew about this crime but the mujahideen brought revenge when they kidnapped two American soldiers in Yusufiyah. They are still waiting to kidnap and kill another eight soldiers, as the price of the death of the girl should be the death of 10 Americans. "I am sure about this. The mujahideen promised us revenge."
One of the family's neighbours, Abu Hazem, 51, said: "We went to visit the cousin of the family who lived about half a mile away to tell them the news. He said, 'Please keep it secret and we will take revenge on the Americans the quiet way'."
Military officials initially thought the abduction of the soldiers in Yusufiyah, about five miles from Mahmoudiyah, was an opportunist strike carried out when the troops became separated from their unit during an insurgents' ambush. Their bodies were found dumped three days later, showing signs of torture. However, the complexity of the ambush - and the level of preparedness required to have manpower to take them away alive - suggests that the kidnap was planned.
Residents of Mahmoudiyah claim that they had long been alarmed by the way some US troops took an interest in their womenfolk. They said that Abeer, who lived in an isolated farmhouse less than a mile from a US checkpoint, had caught the attention of the troops as she did daily chores in the garden.
"She had been told by her parents not to go to school any more because of poor security," said her neighbour Mr Hazem. "She spent most of her time at home cleaning and in the garden so the American forces saw her many times. She was a beautiful girl, and my wife told me that the Americans kept watching her. When I told her father, though, he said it was no problem and that she was just a small girl."
Capt Ehsan Abdul Rahman, a police officer, said: "I told Abeer's cousin that there should be a proper investigation but he did not want media attention."
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, has promised "a transparent investigation", anxious that the case should not be exploited for propaganda. In Mahmoudiyah, however, that battle seems already lost. Relatives of Abeer have denounced the Americans on Arabic satellite channels, including several known to be sympathetic to the insurgents' cause.
Izzat Humadi, 29, a local taxi driver, said: "They started to bother us by winking at our women and we thought that something bad would happen. Now it has. The mujahideen will get more revenge for us and this small girl. We await the capture of another eight American soldiers."
• A US military report on the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha last year has concluded that American Marine officers failed to respond properly to allegations that US troops were involved.