IT IS the cumulative effect of atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq that gravely threatens the fate of the many honorable American troops serving there. And it is the worst possible scenario that could be introduced in violent Iraq at this most tenuous time in its history.
As word spreads of another U.S. inquiry into the killing of Iraqi civilians - the fifth in recent months - the backlash against soldiers in the region could be severe.
The latest incident involves the horrific rape and killing of a young Iraqi woman and the execution-style slaying of three members of her family.
A former Army private honorably discharged because of an "anti-social personality disorder" is accused of rape and four counts of murder. Three other U.S. soldiers are suspected of taking part. Investigators say Steven Green and several soldiers plotted to rape a woman, reportedly as young as 14, that they had ogled at a checkpoint.
Other soldiers' accounts then had Mr. Green and cohorts traveling to a nearby home intending to rape the victim.
According to investigators, Mr. Green rounded up three family members in a room and shot them before he and another soldier raped the woman. Afterward the 21-year-old Green allegedly shot her in the head and set her body on fire.
In hindsight, Iraqi retaliation for the March murders may have already been dealt. Two soldiers who were kidnapped, killed, and mutilated in June were from the same platoon as Mr. Green.
The military, which initially thought the soldiers were targeted because they had become separated from their unit, is now investigating a connection between what happened months apart in nearby towns.
And livid Iraqis are adamant that their new government conduct an investigation of its own into what some are calling the "ugly face of America."
Already strained relations between U.S. military and Iraqis are made even worse with a succession of what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki calls military "mistakes." They're starting to add up after Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and the rape-murders in March.
Last month 12 murder charges were reportedly brought against U.S. troops in Iraq, more than in the rest of the three years since the U.S. invasion.
The exceedingly difficult duty of American soldiers still serving in Iraq has been seriously compromised by rot within the ranks. And U.S. commanders anxious to reduce their forces and leave a friendly Iraq behind may be hard pressed to do either any time soon.