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The World | COLUMN ONE

Into the abyss of Baghdad

After one year away, a returning reporter finds all restraints on wanton killing have vanished. Now bodies pile up like discarded furniture.

October 23, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

Baghdad — I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business -- all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!"

I covered Iraq for two years, beginning a few months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. For the last year, I have been gone. I wondered how the country had changed.

I found that this ancient byway of Islamic learning and foreign invaders has gone over to the dark side. A year ago, car bombs, ambushes, daily gun battles and chronic lack of electricity and gasoline were sapping the city. But not this: the wanton execution of individuals because of sect -- a phenomenon so commonplace it has earned a military shorthand: EJK, for extrajudicial killing.

Every day the corpses pile up in the capital like discarded furniture -- at curbside, in lots, in waterways and sewer lines; every day the executioners return. A city in which it was long taboo to ask, "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" has abruptly become defined by these very characteristics.

Once-harmonious neighborhoods with mixed populations have become communal killing grounds. Residents of one sect or the other must clear out or face the whim of fanatics with power drills.

Gunmen showed up one day on an avenue where fishmongers have long hawked barbecued fillets. They mowed the vendors down. Maybe it was because of the merchants' beliefs -- the fish salesmen were Shiites in a mostly Sunni district, Dawoodi. Maybe it was revenge. No one knows with certainty. No one asks. All that remains are the remnants of charcoal fires.

"It's like a ghost city," laments Fatima Omar, a resident of the Amariya district, which once abounded with street life. She is 22, a recent graduate of Baghdad University, an English major -- and, like many of her generation, unsure of what future she can expect. "So many of our men are either dead or have gone away," she says. "We may be doomed to spinsterhood."

People are here one day, gone the next. Those who do go out often venture no farther than familiar streets. In the sinister evenings, when death squads roam, people block off their lanes with barbed wire, logs, bricks to ward off the killers.

Many residents remain in their homes -- paralyzed, going slowly crazy.

"My children are imprisoned at home," says a cook, Daniel, a Christian whom I knew from better times, now planning to join the exodus from Iraq. "They are nervous and sad all the time. Baghdad is a big prison, and their home is a small one. I forced my son to leave school. It's more important that he be alive than educated."

But homes offer only an illusion of safety. Recently, insurgents rented apartments in mostly Shiite east Baghdad, filled the flats with explosives and blew them up after Friday prayers. Dozens perished.

Even gathering the bodies of loved ones is an exercise fraught with hazards. A Shiite Muslim religious party controls the main morgue near downtown; its militiamen guard the entrance, keen to snatch kin of the dead, many of them Sunni Muslim Arabs. Unclaimed Sunni corpses pile up.

A year ago, many still extolled "Shiite restraint," the majority sect's seeming disavowal of tit-for-tat reprisals for massacres of Shiite pilgrims, policemen, clergy and lawmakers, among others. But you don't hear much anymore about Shiite restraint. Its principal proponent, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, now seems a septuagenarian afterthought, his increasingly exasperated words from the southern shrine city of Najaf reduced to near irrelevancy.

U.S. FORCES find themselves in a strangely ambiguous role. Troops still battle mostly Sunni insurgents, especially in the western province of Al Anbar. In Baghdad's Sunni districts, however, where residents once danced alongside burning Humvees, American troops are now tolerated as a bulwark against Shiite militias. But even that acceptance has its limits.

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