BAGHDAD, Iraq – No sooner had U.S. authorities filed rape and murder charges against ex-soldier Steven D. Green than an account of the incident appeared on an Islamist Web site in the name of an insurgent group, the Mujahedeen Army. It promised “harsh punishment” for the alleged crime.

After three years of war, allegations of U.S. soldiers abusing civilians often draw more media attention in the United States than in Iraq. And they generate little more than perfunctory statements from Iraq’s leaders, who depend on American troops for their political and physical survival.

However, such reports do serve to motivate insurgents, who seize upon them for propaganda value. The allegations also undermine public confidence in the U.S.-backed government and complicate America’s hopes of reducing forces.

The alleged rape and murder of an Iraqi girl in Mahmoudiya and the killing of her father, mother and sister last March is just the latest case in point. Green was charged Monday in federal court in Charlotte, N.C., and up to four others still in uniform are under investigation in Iraq.

Such cases – both real and perceived – place Iraq’s civilian leaders in a quandary.

On the one hand, Iraqi leaders cannot disregard the complaints of their own citizens and expect to maintain any credibility. That affects the United States, too, because it is anxious for the new Iraqi government to win public trust.

On the other hand, Iraqi leaders can’t afford to criticize the U.S. military too much, and play into the hands of those who want to see American and other international forces leave soon.

In its Internet account of the Mahmoudiya case, the insurgent group implied that Iraqi authorities did not take the case seriously at first because the victims – like most insurgents – were Sunnis.

All that explains the measured public response of the Iraqi government to the Mahmoudiya case, as well as to other allegations, including claims that U.S. Marines killed about two dozen civilians in Haditha last November.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s justice minister demanded that the U.N. Security Council ensure punishment for those guilty in the rape-slaying, branding the attack “monstrous and inhuman.”

So far, however, no statement has been issued by Iraq’s president or prime minister.

During an interview Sunday with CNN, the Iraqi industry minister, a Kurd, cautioned against drawing conclusions about the rape-slaying based on “purely speculative reports.” He warned that the Mahmoudiya case “will be taken … out of context” by “enemies of the friendly relations between Iraq and the United States.”

The fallout over Mahmoudiya didn’t stop President Jalal Talabani from warmly praising America, telling a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy that the world “always looked up to the United States for support in their just causes.” Top figures from Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties were all in attendance.

Such words highlight the fact that many Iraqi officials – Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis alike – want the U.S. military to stay for now, and fear that an abrupt drawdown would leave the country in chaos and their own government unable to survive.

The fact that the Mahmoudiya allegations include rape is likely to stir a special sense of outrage in a religiously conservative society where women are sheltered and where sex outside of marriage can bring shame on entire families.

For years the insurgents have spread rumors – roundly denied by U.S. officials – of the systematic rape of Iraqi women held in U.S.-run jails. True or not, the Mahmoudiya case will be seen by many Iraqis as confirmation of those rumors.

“The rape of an Iraqi girl by a bunch of U.S. soldiers who stalked her house summarizes what has been going on in Iraq for the past years,” said Iraq’s biggest Sunni-owned newspaper, Azzaman, under a headline “The Rape of an Honest Woman.”

Such comments, fair or not, resonate within a society where honor and pride are highly esteemed.

Indeed, many Iraqis – even those who see benefits in a continued U.S. military role here – consider the mere presence of foreign soldiers as an affront to their pride.

Such feelings are heightened by the countless petty indignities suffered daily by Iraqis – from delays at checkpoints and random searches of homes to perceived affronts at the hands of soldiers who do not speak their language or understand their culture.

“We disapprove of this shameful crime,” one Baghdad resident, Saad Ali, said of the Mahmoudiya case.

“We ask the U.S. army in the name of humanity and especially in the name of Iraqi honor to leave Iraqi land.”

Robert H. Reid is correspondent at large for The Associated Press and has reported frequently from Iraq since 2003.

AP-ES-07-04-06 1408EDT

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