updated 7/16/2006 8:08:37 PM ET 2006-07-17T00:08:37

U.S. military officials fear that religious hurdles in exhuming the body of a teenager could complicate the prosecution of American soldiers accused of raping and murdering the girl — and create a political nightmare for the U.S. mission here.

Given the seriousness of the allegations, U.S. officials believe a vigorous prosecution is essential and punishment should be severe if the six servicemen and one former soldier are convicted.

Anything short of that would be seen by Iraqis as a cover up and could shatter remaining support for the U.S. presence here.

Five soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are accused of raping and murdering Abeer al-Janabi near the town of Mahmoudiya on March 12. A sixth soldier is accused of failing to report the crime.

The soldiers allegedly saw the victim at a checkpoint in the town and plotted the attack for a week, according to federal court documents. Three of her family members were killed in the assault.

Desecration of the dead
But the victim’s male relatives have refused to allow her body to be exhumed because of objections from a Muslim cleric. Islamic law frowns on exhumations as desecration of the dead.

“Chief among our concerns is carrying out justice. But when you get town officials or an imam saying that exhuming the body doesn’t jive with our cultural sensitivities, that creates a massive stumbling block,” a U.S. military official in Baghdad close to the investigation said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media.

Without forensic evidence, prosecutors must rely heavily on statements from the suspects. Defense lawyers will doubtless claim those statements were made under duress and seek to keep them from the jury.

While some evidence has been collected at the home where the assault allegedly occurred, officials say none of it confirms guilt.

A photograph of the girl’s Iraqi identity card, viewed by The Associated Press in Baghdad, showed the girl was 14 at the time of the attack, with her birthdate listed as Aug. 19, 1991. The identity card was issued in 1993 and shows a picture of the girl as a toddler.

The soldiers — Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spc. James P. Barker, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard — are accused of rape and murder. They allegedly conspired with former soldier Steven D. Green, who was arrested last month in North Carolina.

Federal court
Green, who was discharged from the Army because of a personality disorder, likely will be tried in federal court. The former Army private pleaded not guilty to one count of rape and four counts of murder and is being held without bond.

Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a direct participant.

Those still on active duty face an Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, to determine if they should stand trial. If the case does go to trial, the murder suspects could face the death penalty.

Yet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has complained that Iraqi courts should try cases of abuse by American soldiers — something the U.S. command strongly resists — and last week called for a review of an agreement giving foreign troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution.

“Those who are free from being punished misbehave, and they have misbehaved a lot,” al-Maliki said.

The U.S. military always has insisted it will punish soldiers who commit crimes against Iraqis. During a visit last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld underscored that position, insisting that “no one” in the U.S. force “is immune,” meaning from U.S. though not Iraqi prosecution.

The attack was the latest in a string of allegations that U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq have killed civilians, including the alleged massacre of dozens in Haditha.

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