Innocents Lost: For Many Iraqi Women, Political Liberation Has Meant Sexual Enslavement

Article excerpt

IRONY IN MOTION: Iraqi girls dance nightly in bright, clinging gowns, circling the stage like glittering chattel, swaying their hips seductively one moment, fearfully clutching the hand of a peer the next.

They were liberated, we are told, in the American invasion more than five years ago. But tonight they will service Saudi businessmen and other wealthy Arabs from U.S.-friendly Gulf states who travel to Damascus to buy the pretty flesh of Iraqi refugees. The pimps in the clubs take a 90 percent cut, while the girls--some said to be as young as 11--take their places in the perverted cakewalk.

The absurd and cruel point is lost on most Americans because the predominant debate this summer has been whether the surge won the war and at what point U.S. soldiers can come home. No one asks when these lost girls--many of whom are spending their summer as "brides" of rich Arab dandies who will use them up and divorce them in the fall--can return to Iraq. The answer doesn't jibe with the current success narrative.

More likely than not, they don't have homes to return to. For many Iraqi women, their options have been systematically eliminated since U.S. bombs began to fall on Iraq in March 2003. They have lost their husbands and security, their houses through violence and sectarian cleansing, their dignity and freedom to fundamentalist militias that marched into the breach when neighborhoods began breaking down. Thousands fled over the borders. Countless others were kidnapped or coerced into leaving--including youngsters spirited away from Baghdad orphanages--and pressed into cross-border sexploitation.

The humiliating bargain they struck to survive limits their ability to return to Iraq safely. Even if these women and girls were to locate their families, it is likely that they would be disowned, even hunted like animals and killed for soiling their clans' reputations. So-called "honor killings" have been on the rise in Iraq since the war began. Or the women might end up with countless others in Iraqi prisons, or squatting in burned-out buildings, or back in brothels. "I have no one there and in any case I am afraid for my life," 16-year-old Nada told BBC News in 2007. "My family has abandoned me." She was forced into prostitution in Syria after her father dumped her at the border, and was facing deportation when the story aired.

Girls like Nada are but a fraction of the estimated 2.3 million Iraqi refugees who, if they decided to return en masse, would join some 2.7 million internally displaced Iraqis who have endured similar horrors in their own neighborhoods. Private contractors working on the U.S. taxpayers' dime have been accused of human trafficking and running forced labor in the Green Zone, the epicenter of the foreign occupation.

Furthermore, a food crisis, drought, and an ongoing lack of the necessities--clean water, electricity, healthcare, and jobs--have made Iraq a fragile place, even if the bullets aren't flying as frequently as a year ago.

"At this time, [we] cannot promote or encourage return to Iraq until [refugees] can do so in dignity and safety," and that's just not going to happen anytime soon, says Ziad Ayad, a research officer at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, which is the primary provider of assistance to 54,000 registered Iraqi refugees there. A total of 500,000 to 750,000 Iraqis have sought refuge in Jordan--17,000 were granted visas in the last three months alone. There are approximately 1.2 million Iraqis in Syria, about 215,000 of them registered with UNHCR.

"I think the crisis itself undermines the success story that the [Bush] administration wants people to focus on," says Abbas Kadhim, assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and a refugee of the first Gulf War. A Shi'ite from Najaf, he came to the U.S. in 1992, fleeing the wrath of Saddam Hussein. …