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March 5, 2007
Human rights still elude Iraqi women this International Women's Day, March 8. And the United States must take action to end the abuse and violence against women in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
Houzan Mahmoud, an outspoken Iraqi feminist, recently opened her e-mail and found a message from Ansar-al Islam, a notorious Sunni jihadist group. The message simply read, "We will kill you by the middle of March."
Houzan is also a 34-year-old journalist who 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. Since the United States invaded, Iraqi women have endured a wave of death threats, assassinations, abductions, public beatings, targeted sexual assaults and public hangings.
Both Sunni and Shiite Islamist militias direct much of this violence. These groups mushroomed across Iraq after the U.S. toppled the secular Baath regime.
Ironically, the Shiite militias are the armed wings of the political parties that the U.S. boosted into power. Their aim is to establish an Islamist theocracy and their social vision requires the subjugation of women.
In 2005, the Pentagon began providing the Shiite Badr Brigade with weapons, money and military training in the hope that such groups would help combat the Sunni-based insurgency.
Today, Shiite militias have reportedly used Iraq's police and security forces to wage a sectarian civil war against Sunnis. Some radical offshoot Shiite groups are also attacking U.S. soldiers.
President Bush's new Baghdad security plan is aimed in part at reining in the Mahdi Army in particular, though the group has been systematically torturing and killing women for more than three years.
Gangs of these Shiite militias 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.
Shiite militias aren't the only problem.
In The New Yorker magazine, journalist Seymour Hersh recently exposed a new covert White House policy that funnels money to Sunni jihadist groups like the one that is threatening Houzan Mahmoud.
As the occupying power, the United States is obligated by the Geneva Conventions to provide security to Iraqi civilians, including protecting Iraqi women from violence. But the U.S. military, preoccupied with battling the Iraqi insurgency, simply ignores the reign of terror that Islamist militias have been imposing on women.
For all its talk of bringing democracy to Iraq, the Bush administration has traded away the rights of more than half of the population -- Iraq's women. As a result, the United States has replaced Saddam's secular tyranny with Islamist tyranny.
As the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, Americans must understand what this war is doing to Iraqi women and push lawmakers to end this oppression once and for all.
Yifat Susskind is communications director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization, and is the author of a new report, "Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-based Violence and the U.S. War in Iraq." She can be reached at email@example.com.