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Baghdad's Packed Morgue Marks a City's Descent Into Lawlessness

September 16, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A sourness stings the morning air as men with wooden coffins tied on taxis come to collect the murdered: a boy shot in the face during a carjacking, a ruffian stabbed in a neighborhood fight, a sheik ambushed by his rivals, a son with a bullet through the heart.

U.S.-led coalition forces insist that stability is returning to Iraq. The ledger in the Baghdad morgue tells a different tale.

The number of reported gun-related killings in Baghdad has increased 25-fold since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1. Before the war began, the morgue investigated an average of 20 deaths a month caused by firearms. In June, that number rose to 389 and in August it reached 518. Moreover, the overall number of suspicious deaths jumped from about 250 a month last year to 872 in August.

The Baghdad morgue is beyond full. Refrigeration boxes that usually hold six bodies are crammed with 18. An unidentified corpse is dragged across the floor beneath the blue glow of an insect-repelling light. Five others -- two pocked with gunshot wounds -- lie on steel tables. With quiet determination, pathologists lift their scalpels, chart their findings and fill the waiting coffins.

Most of the dead here are not casualties of military actions or terrorist attacks, such as last month's bombing of the United Nations headquarters, which killed at least 20 people. Nor are they American soldiers.

Instead, they are everyday civilians, victims of the violence that has become a fact of life in a city that wakes and sleeps to the cadence of gunfire and unrelenting crime. The coalition forces and the new Iraqi police have been unable to stop the torrent of mayhem springing from robberies, carjackings and just plain anger.

Many killings, according to police and pathologists, are rooted in revenge. Saddam Hussein's ousted regime murdered tens of thousands in its ongoing terror campaign, but its omnipresent security force limited animosities among tribes and clans.

With that shackle broken, the slights and anger that accumulated over the years are being settled with a sort of frontier justice, especially against Baath Party loyalists and other remnants of Hussein's regime.

The equation is further complicated by the thousands of criminals Hussein released from prison in the months before the March invasion by U.S.-led coalition forces. And by the tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and pistols that make every neighborhood an arsenal. Coalition troops confiscated heavy weapons in July but allowed Iraqis to keep some light arms for self-defense. These guns often lead to murder.

The rash of bloodshed provides a stark indication that Iraqi society is careening out of control and that Hussein's aftermath carries its own incomprehensible brutality.

Bodies are fished out of the muddy-green Tigris. They are pulled from alleys, gathered from rooftops and lifted from garbage piles. Some are left on the roadside, like that of Bashar Khammas Mohammed, a 26-year-old taxi driver who was strangled with his own headdress. They are then brought to the morgue, where a meticulous man wearing rubber gloves ties strings around their wrists and assigns each of them a number.

"We are a people not yet suitable for democracy," said Sattar Mohammed, who waited the other day with an open coffin to pick up his slain neighbor. "We need to be strictly handled. We need a tight fist over us. We lived like that for 30 years under Saddam Hussein, but now people are free, and they're acting on their will. It is dangerous."

That grim assessment is echoed often.

"I've been working in this morgue for 29 years," said pathologist Abdul Razzaq Ubaidi. Each of his pale blue folders holds a sheet of paper describing a body. "It used to be accidents and natural deaths. Now there are too many weapons in society. We used to dissect six or seven bodies a day, but now we do 25 to 35 a day, and 80% of them are bullet injuries. We have more freedom, but with the absence of security there is more freedom for murder."

A state of lawlessness has resulted as Iraqi society veers between the end of tyranny and unfulfilled promises of stability from an embryonic U.S.-backed government struggling to bring a new form of administration to the country. The police force is understaffed at 38,000 officers nationwide, although it is expected to grow to 65,000. Baghdad has more than 5,000 officers, down from 17,000 before the war.

The death of Sheik Abdul Jabar Farhan Salman, according to authorities, appears to have been caused by a mix of revenge and opportunism. A member of the powerful Bu-Issa tribe in the city of Fallouja, the sheik controlled much of the region's cigarette market. Rich enough to escape the turmoil of postwar Iraq, Salman moved his family to Amman, Jordan. He visited Iraq frequently to check on his business.

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