Iraqi women no better off post-Saddam - Amnesty

LONDON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Nearly two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, women there are no better off than under the rule of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, the human rights group Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

In a report entitled "Iraq -- Decades of Suffering," it said that while the systematic repression under Saddam had ended, it had been replaced by increased murders, and sexual abuse -- including by U.S. forces.

Washington promised that the overthrow of Saddam would free the Iraqi people from years of oppression and set them on the road to democracy. But Amnesty said post-war insecurity had left women at risk of violence and curtailed their freedoms.

"The lawlessness and increased killings, abductions and rapes that followed the overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein have restricted women's freedom of movement and their ability to go to school or to work," Amnesty said.

"Women have been subjected to sexual threats by members of the U.S.-led forces and some women detained by U.S. forces have been sexually abused, possibly raped," it added.

Amnesty said several women detained by U.S. troops had spoken in interviews with them of beatings, threats of rape, humiliating treatment and long periods of solitary confinement.

The Pentagon said it had not seen the report, but took any allegations of detainee abuse seriously.

"We have demonstrated our commitment to ensuring that kind of behaviour is identified and dealt with properly," spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Richard said in Washington.

"With this report, we would like the opportunity to review it and to test the validity of the allegations."

Amnesty said women's rights activists and political leaders had also been targeted by armed insurgent groups.

Women continued to suffer legal discrimination under laws that granted husbands effective impunity to beat their wives and treated so-called "honour" killers leniently, the group said.

"Within their own communities, many women and girls remain at risk of death from male relatives if they are accused of behaviour held to have brought dishonour on the family," Amnesty said, noting some attempts by religious zealots to make the laws even more repressive against women.

But on the positive side, the report said several women's rights groups had been formed -- including ones that focused on the protection of women from violence.

Amnesty called on the Iraqi authorities and newly elected members of the National Assembly to enshrine the rights of women in the new constitution.

This included treating honour killings as murder, outlawing violence within marriage and making sure that the punishment was commensurate with the crime committed.

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02/21/2005 13:45