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The Conflict in Iraq

Crime as Lethal as Warfare in Iraq

As morgues fill, police blame sectarian rivalries suppressed by Hussein. Kidnapping and the trade in arms and drugs are also on the rise.

March 20, 2005|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It's been more than a month since Hassan Hadi watched as his co-workers were executed one by one at the Happiness Bakery, and he can't stop replaying the moment when fate spared him.

In a small apartment just a block from the scene of the slaughter, a relative of one of the victims tucks a pistol into his waistband and slides a dull green grenade into his coat pocket as he ponders revenge.

And in the gloomy dissecting hall of Baghdad's central morgue, a doctor who examined the bakery victims laughs weakly to himself as still more bodies arrive at the crowded facility.

"The cases we are getting are unbelievable," Dr. Taha Qassim says. "Huge crimes, assassinations, beheadings. Why, only today I dissected three beheaded bodies. We will probably break the record for beheaded cadavers in any forensic department in the world."

As Iraq's newly elected leaders cobble together the foundation of a fledgling democracy, a killing epidemic has taken hold of this troubled nation. Ministry of Health statistics show that record numbers of Iraqi civilians are coming to violent ends, particularly here in the capital.

Assassinations and bombings have garnered worldwide attention. But Iraqi officials say violence unrelated to the insurgency is growing, and Iraqis are more likely to die at the hands -- or in the cross-fire -- of kidnappers, carjackers and angry neighbors than in car bombings.

In some cases, authorities say, the motives are so opaque that they cannot tell whether they are investigating a crime disguised as an act of war or a political assassination masquerading as a violent business dispute.

In Baghdad alone, officials at the central morgue counted 8,035 deaths by unnatural causes in 2004, up from 6,012 the previous year, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. In 2002, the final year of Saddam Hussein's regime, the morgue examined about 1,800 bodies.

Of the deaths occurring now, 60% are caused by gunshot wounds, officials say, and most are unrelated to the insurgency. Twenty to 30 bodies arrive at the morgue every day, and the victims are overwhelmingly male.

Much of the violence, officials say, is inspired by the ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries that were held in check by Hussein's brutal rule, and facilitated by a ready supply of firearms. That deadly combination has let loose a wave of vengeance killings, tribal vendettas, mercenary kidnappings and thievery.

"The only virtue of the old regime is that Iraq enjoyed a state of stability," said Lt. Faris Jubrail of the Baghdad police. "It was a reaction to the huge size of punishment that the regime would practice. This would never have happened then."

Police say they are also growing increasingly worried about the recent arrival of organized criminal groups who trade in arms, drugs and stolen cars and blackmail people. In some cases, police say, insurgents have paid gangs of thugs to kidnap doctors and engineers or kill barbers for giving Western-style haircuts.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the police, saying Tuesday in Baghdad that criminals-for-hire were playing a growing role in the insurgency.

Police say the gangs aren't motivated by a desire to end the occupation; they're just looking to make a buck.

"There are many different ways people meet martyrdom now," an Iraqi police spokesman said dryly. "In the old days, these things were contained by the regime, but now they are unleashed."

One such incident, the officer said, was the brazen killing of 11 workers and customers Feb. 11 at the Happiness Bakery in New Baghdad, a working-class Shiite Muslim suburb on the capital's east side.

Investigators first suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents -- the bakeries had images of Shiite clerics and posters urging customers to vote in the Jan. 30 elections, and the attack occurred just before Ashura, a major Shiite holiday.

Police changed their thinking when witnesses recognized several killers as Shiites. Authorities now suspect a tribal vendetta. They speculate that a gang may have been hired to commit the crime and make it appear as though rebels were behind it.

Hadi, 30, said a crowd of hungry customers was clamoring for warm loaves of breakfast samoon that Friday morning at the popular bakery on Martyrs Street. Hadi was busy twisting gobs of dough into loaves, while baker Ali Salim hoisted them into the oven with a broad, wooden paddle.

They joked as they worked. "We were kidding our younger worker, Mustafa," Hadi recalled. "We were making fun of his big nose."

The laughter stopped abruptly when gunfire exploded just outside. Beyond Hadi's view, three cars loaded with armed men had emptied onto the street and the gunmen were rushing the stores. "God is the greatest!" a gunman screamed. "There is no god but God!"

Alarm turned to terror within the Happiness Bakery as a second burst of gunfire shattered the front window and tore through the cashier, killing him.

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