Published October 10, 2003, in The Irish Times

Unspeakable savagery on streets of Baghdad
Back to Iraq:
Evidence of the daily carnage can be found in abundance at the city's morgue. Lara Marlowe went there

The little bundle wrapped inside plastic sheeting is dwarfed by the adult-sized plywood coffin. 2-1/2 year-old Fatima Ala'a's aunt crumples to the ground outside the Baghdad city morgue when she sees the viscous, grey-green blob teeming with maggots.

Another relative sprays insecticide on the corpse, to fight off the onslaught of flies.

"They kidnapped her seven days ago," says Fatima's uncle, Walid Mohamed.

"A neighbour's family did it, the sons of Um Ashraf and Abu Ashraf. They wanted money and we didn't have it. Someone else was demanding money from them, so they turned on us. Another neighbour noticed a bad smell in his house. That was how we found her, in the sewer.

"I recognised her hair barrettes and her black trousers with the green polka-dots. Though she was very small, I think they raped her." Fatima's father Ala'a Abed, a night watchman, stands to one side, as if in a trance. The little girl was his eldest child. He has only an infant son left. The Shia family from the district of Sayadieh did not have enough money to take Fatima to their holy city of Najaf for burial, so they buried her in Baghdad yesterday.

"We blame the Americans for not taking security seriously," her Uncle Walid says.

A trip to the Baghdad city morgue and forensics institute makes clear the depths to which human beings can sink, the unspeakable savagery that reigns on the streets of the Iraqi capital.

As I talk with Fatima's family, a white jeep backs up to the door of the autopsy room, its tailgate open. A man keens over the body of his brother, shot dead hours earlier. "Oh Ahmad Mohamed," he wails. "Where are the people who believe in the holy books, in the Koran and the Bible?"

The morgue receives between 20 and 30 bodies each day, less than during the peak killing season of July and August, but still three times the number of daily fatalities prior to the US occupation.

"The Americans should issue a new law, that any murderer they catch will be hanged," says Dr Sa'ad Kadim, a forensic pathologist.

"When Saddam Hussein fell, we were happy, but after the looting and killing took hold, we lost heart."

Police brought 667 bodies to the morgue in the month of September. Of those, 372 - including 50 women - died of gunshot wounds, says Dr Qais Hassan, also a forensic pathologist and the director of the morgue's statistics department.

The worst month this year was August, when 518 Baghdadis were shot dead, compared to 10 fatalities from bullets in August 2002.

The statistics tell the story of Baghad's descent into cold-blooded mayhem. In all of 2002, 174 people died of gunshot wounds in the capital. This year, until the end of September, pathologists recorded 2,173 deaths by firearms in Baghdad alone, almost all of them since May.

The institute closed down for "10 days when the regime fell in April, so dozens if not hundreds of deaths during that period were not counted.

"It's a disaster," Dr Hassan says. "At the end of the war, the Iraqi army left weapons all over the place. US forces could have collected them, but they didn't do it. Security is getting a little better, because there are more Iraqi police now."

Dr Hassan estimates that up to a quarter of fatal shootings are caused by US troops.

"Twenty days ago, Iraqis were joy-shooting at a wedding party in Baghdad and the Americans thought they were being attacked.

"They opened fire and killed a 21-year-old woman, the five-month-old daughter she was holding in her arms and the woman's eight-year-old brother.

"At the end of July, a family were driving past a power station guarded by the Americans in the Suleikh district.

"Something exploded near a generator and the Americans fired at the car.

"They killed the father - I remember, his name was Adel - his 20-year-old son and daughters, aged 19 and 13."

Dr Hassan says it is easy to tell the difference between Iraqi and US bullets.

"This morning, the police from Mahmoudiya station brought in this man," he says, holding up the papers for 26-year-old Sa'ad Mohamed.

"I found American-type bullets in his body. They are long and narrow and do far more damage to internal organs than Iraqi bullets. They make big laceration wounds."

Sa'ad Mohamed had five bullets in his chest, head and arms. "I don't know if he attacked the Americans," Dr Hassan says.

When asked by Western journalists, the Coalition Provisional Authority and US military officials have repeatedly said they do not know how many Iraqi civilians have fallen victim to the extreme violence of post-war Baghdad. But every month, Dr Hassan says, US representatives in the health ministry across the street ask their Iraqi counterparts to request the statistics from him.

It is not clear whether the silence of the CPA regarding civilian Iraqi deaths is due to a deliberate cover-up or merely the bureaucratic failure to pass on information within the CPA.

In the small alley behind the forensic institute, outside the blue metal doors leading to the autopsy and refrigeration rooms, the tragedy is unending.

The cheap coffins lined up on the ground are lent by mosques. Since Muslims are buried in a shroud only, the coffins are recycled after each trip to the cemetery.

A man removes a blood-soaked piece of cardboard from one coffin, a blood-stained blanket from another, preparing them for the next victims.

A middle-aged man stands calmly amid the moaning and wailing and bustle of families crowding around the clerk's window to pay the 10,000 Iraqi dinars (about E4.30) fee for a death certificate.

"I am waiting for my daughter's body," he whispers. "She was standing by the gate to our house and someone shot her."

Water used to mop the floors inside the morgue floods into the alley, which reeks of the sour, butcher shop smell of death.

Policemen carry in a man's body, covered by a blanket. Two bloodied feet, bound at the ankles, protrude from under the rough fabric.

"We found him in the street in Baghdad Jediedeh at 7 am," Lt Arkan Khalil says. "The thieves cut his legs, but he died of strangulation. We think they stole his car. We found no identity papers. It's a miserable situation. These things never used to happen."

"When the victim has no papers, we write 'unknown' in the records," Dr Kadim says.

"It happens with three or four out of every 20 victims. Families come here looking for missing people. We keep them in the refrigerator for one month, and then Muslim charities or the municipality bury them."

A Toyota police pick-up with a double cabin backs into the courtyard with two partially covered bodies in the back. They are car thieves, shot by the man they tried to rob.

"Most of the deaths are related to car theft," Dr Kadim continues. The owner of a new Opel car handed over his keys to thieves in Haifa Street and ran.

When the thieves realised that he had used an electronic zapper to block the door locks, they pursued him and shot him; the Opel owner's body too found its way to the city morgue yesterday morning.

Revenge is another frequent motive. "It's from the previous time," Dr Kadim explains.

"A lot of those killed are former Ba'ath party members, intelligence and security officials. We know because their relatives tell us."

Musa Ahmad has come to collect the body of his cousin Haidar Sabah (32).

"The neighbours saw him dying in the street and went and told his mother. He was shot four times in the legs and lower abdomen. He was his widowed mother's only son, and we had to stop her from throwing herself in the river. The two of them lived alone together."

Mr Sabah sold electrical supplies in the Shorja market. "He was a scrappy guy, always getting in fights," Mr Musa said. "I think it was revenge. But only God knows."

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