BAGHDAD (WOMENSENEWS)–The streets of Iraq’s once lively, late-night capital are now deserted after 11 p.m. But it’s not a coalition curfew that’s keeping residents indoors. It’s the lawlessness of modern Baghdad, which generates frequent comments here about how much safer the streets, at least, were under Saddam Hussein.

The reformed and U.S.-trained Iraqi police have taken a higher profile in recent months and promised to restore order. But, according to human rights and women’s activists, one of the most violent and devastating aspects of the surge in Iraqi crime may also be its most overlooked: sexual violence and abductions of Iraqi women.

Although this type of crime was rampant under the former regime, onlookers note that, at best, it seems to be keeping pace with a general rise in crime. It could be rising at an even faster rate under a security regime now preoccupied with defending itself from bombings and keeping no track of the problem.

Last summer, a Human Rights Watch report on the incidence of such crimes in Baghdad concluded that, “an accurate count of women and girl victims of sexual violence is almost impossible to achieve.”

That report identified two main factors obstructing proper accounting: reluctance on the part of victims to report the crime out of fear of familial or societal repercussions and the disorganization and comparative nonchalance of the Iraqi police in investigating and cataloging sexual crimes.

Sexual Crimes Downplayed

Samira Moustafa, secretary general of the Iraqi Women’s League, recently complained in an interview with Women’s eNews that police–both before and after the fall of the regime–treat sexual violence and abduction as a lesser priority than other crimes, and actively downplay its existence.

“It’s not in the interest of the police to publicize the real number of abductees,” she said. “Their interest is to cover it up.” That seems to be motivated by a combination of wanting to hide how little control the police have over things as well as their reluctance to actually investigate the cases.

In the absence of official numbers, any exploration of the issue must rely largely on anecdotal evidence. The Human Rights Watch report, released in July 2003, identified 25 cases of sexual violence and abduction of women. More recently, the December issue of Ishtar, an Iraqi women’s magazine, interviewed several victims and their families.

The tales from the victims bear disturbingly familiar details, suggesting the work of organized professional gangs. Women ranging in age from 9 to 49 are abducted from the streets by groups of men, often in broad daylight, and taken to rural locations around Baghdad. Occasionally, the women are dropped off somewhere in the city after a few days of being raped repeatedly. But sometimes they’re never heard from again, fueling speculation that Iraqi women are being sold into prostitution and virtual slavery.

Female Teen Describes Her Ordeal

The Human Rights Watch report quotes one escaped abductee, a 15-year-old identified only as Mona, who describes being presented to a group of potential buyers.

“They brought people they wanted to sell us to. They would bring in men; they would look at us and then bargain and negotiate a price. One was a fat woman wearing a veil, and another time two men came,” she said. “They would talk to us, saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make you happy. We’ll give you a happy life’ . . . I think they wanted us to be dancers or something like that. They told us that Ibtisam (the female captor) dances and she tried to teach me to dance. I didn’t want to and I didn’t look at her when she danced.”

Conspiracy theories naturally vary wildly as to who is doing the abducting. Kuwaitis and Saudis–perennial villains in the Iraqi rumor mill–can be cast in the role. Others blame former high-ranking Baathists operating in conjunction with criminal gangs.

Safia al-Souhail, an activist and “shiekha,” or leader, of the Beni-Tamim tribe, said the former regime practically formalized sexual violence and rape as a political intimidation tactic.

“It was part of the culture,” she said. “There were members of the mukhabarat (secret police) whose identification actually said ‘Profession: rape.'”

Moustafa, of the Iraqi Women’s league, agreed that abducting and selling women was a common practice under the former regime. The most recent issue of the league’s newspaper describes an official document, allegedly acquired from intelligence files, which coldly lists the names and ages of 18 Kurdish women rounded up during the genocidal “Anfal” crackdowns in the late 1980s and sold to “nightclubs in Egypt.”

“It started with the government. Then it moved into private gangs,” Moustafa said. “But major former government officials are still involved. The Americans only took the top out. The second layer is still there and working.”

Once Sold, Unable to Come Home

Often, the victims of such abductions feel trapped by societal perceptions of female chastity. Moustafa said the women sold overseas feel unable to return home, fearing that they will be blamed or viewed as an object of shame.

“It’s a fait accompli. They’re forced into this life,” she said. “They’re trapped. Even if they gain their freedom, they’re not seen as innocent victims. Their families see them as dead.”

The same societal fears often prevent rape victims from coming forward and reporting the crimes. The Human Rights Watch report describes “a long-standing cultural stigma and shame attached to rape that positions victims as the wrongdoers and too frequently excuses or treats leniently the perpetrator.”

For those who do come forward and report the crimes, the police response is so inadequate it can often lead to further frustration and despair, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

Bombing Fears a Higher Priority

A visit to Baghdad’s Beyaa police station, meanwhile, quickly reveals that the officers have more on their minds than street crime. The entire front section of the station is being rebuilt in the wake of an October car bombing that left dozens of officers wounded.

Major Abbas Muhammed says it’s been months since any young women in the district have been reported as abducted, and pledges that Baghdad’s lawless days are gradually coming to an end.

“I’m not saying we’ve controlled all the crime, but it is better,” he said. The police, he says, are coming to grips with a second crime spree that hit the city in November, largely due to a bureaucratic snafu.

Following the height of instability from May through July last year, the police rounded up hundreds of criminals, many of whom had been released by Saddam Hussein on the eve of the war. Most of these went to a U.S. military jail set up at the Baghdad Airport. But the actual records on who did what never made it into U.S. hands. As a result, many of the worst offenders ended up being released again this past autumn, prompting a second crime wave in November.

Now the police say they’re back on top and generously equipped by the United States with shiny new vehicles, uniforms and weapons. But they complain that their authority on the street still pales before that of the U.S. troops.

“Nobody opens their mouths when the Americans are out,” said Lt. Qutayba Hamid. “When a policeman comes out, nobody cares, but one American soldier can turn a neighborhood upside down.”

The newly established Major Crimes Directorate of the Iraqi Police is still getting set up and is under the supervision of U.S. Army Military Police. The building practically gleams, with brand-new computers–some yet to be plugged in–in many of the rooms.

The directorate has dedicated divisions to kidnapping, counterfeiting, organized crime, riot control and counter-terrorism. Colonel Faisal Dosaki, head of the anti-kidnapping division, extols the virtues of the new Iraqi police.

“We are some of the best in the world,” he says, adding that they should be teaching the Americans. “We have a lot of experience. It’s more a question of facilities and finances.”

Staff Sergeant Michael Lawzano, a Missouri police officer serving as the main liaison to the Major Crimes Unit, says kidnapping is still an ongoing problem. But the vast majority of cases handled by the division are kidnappings for ransom.

“Almost all of it is money motivated,” he says.

But the division seems to have no apparatus for dealing with cases of rape or sexual violence. Those cases rarely make their way to the Major Crimes Directorate.

“A lot of times, that would stay in the local police station,” says Lawzano.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Womens eNews. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and the Economist.

For more information:

Human Rights Watch–
“Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and abduction of Women and girls in Baghdad”:

“Iraq: Fear smothers women’s rights”:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty–
“Iraq: Human Rights Watch Says Fear Of Assault Keeping Women Indoors”: