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Baghdad morgue, hospital logs tell of violence

Since occupation, city sees surge in shooting deaths

BAGHDAD -- Even in these murderous days, where carjackings, shootings, and holdups by machine-gun-armed gangs are commonplace, Allaa Abed Ali's grisly claim at the Baghdad morgue stood out in the keening crowd.

Twelve of his family members were massacred in their two-story home at lunchtime Aug. 25 in one of the inexplicable but increasingly common attacks that have made many Iraqis feel less safe than they did during the American invasion -- and which have become a rallying point against military authorities.

Ali and several dozen kinsmen had come to pick up the bodies and bear them away to Najaf, site of the holiest cemetery for Shi'ite Muslims.

In Baghdad, where the number of murders has skyrocketed into the hundreds every month since US forces took over and disbanded the Iraqi security forces, the Ali clan was not alone in the morgue's cramped concrete courtyard. Hundreds of Baghdadis waited to claim family members whose violent deaths required autopsies before the bodies could be released.

No one has quantified the exact level of violence in Iraq, matching numbers to the ubiquitous contention that the country is less safe now than it was under Saddam Hussein's rule.

But hospital emergency room logs and the Baghdad morgue numbers provide a clue.

In 2002 the Baghdad morgue conducted autopsies in 3,500 suspicious deaths; 350 died from gunshot wounds.

But in the three months since the fall of Hussein's government -- May, June, and July -- the morgue has logged 1,169 shooting deaths out of a total of 1,868 suspicious fatalities, according to the morgue's director, Dr. Faik Amin Baker.

The US-led occupation authority insists that the security environment for Iraqis has not deteriorated unreasonably and that Baghdad was a dangerous city under the old regime. The American authorities in Iraq don't track civilian deaths, even those caused by coalition soldiers. "We have not found it a benefit during the entire war to get into civilian casualties. We never got into body counts," US military spokesman Colonel Guy Shields said.

The Iraq Body Count Project, a group of researchers based in London, estimates the Iraqi civilian deaths resulting directly from coalition military action at 6,113 to 7,830 in 2003. The tally is based primarily on media reports.

The nightly firefights that punctuate the still-hot Baghdad nights signal a surge in violence that has affected every sector of the population.

New police are being trained, but with only 38,000 hired so far across Iraq, they're not up to prewar strength. Coalition officials, including occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III, have repeatedly stressed that newly constituted Iraqi security bodies are the only solution to the safety problem. The US-led administration plans to hire and train tens of thousands of Iraqis for a reconstituted Iraqi military, as well as a Civil Defense corps that will supplement the police.

However, it could take up to a year for the coalition to hire and train new local forces.

Other moves by the coalition might have exacerbated the security collapse driving the wave of civilian deaths.

In an attempt to reign in Iraq's firearm-friendly culture, the coalition has made it illegal to carry guns; one unintended consequence was the disbanding of well-armed neighborhood patrols that sprung up in Baghdad to deter thieves and looters in the absence of US military patrols.

Iraqis regularly empty AK-47 clips in the air as a gesture of joy. On Thursday nights, the traditional wedding day, bursts of fire pierce the postcurfew quiet. Many of those stray bullets land Iraqis in hospital emergency rooms.

At Al-Yarmuk Hospital, the largest public hospital in western Baghdad, the emergency room admits about 20 gunshot and stab victims nightly -- 10 times more than before the war, according to the director, Dr. Mahdi Jasim Moosa, 55.

The logbook entries for a recent Wednesday night show more than a dozen admissions for bullet wounds, mortar injuries, and stabbings.

Bleeding in the waiting room from a stab wound in his calf was Walid Khalid Hassan, who said he had just been robbed of 25,000 Iraqi dinars, about $12.

Citywide, police investigate about 70 shootings a day, said Sergeant Abdul Rahman Hassain. "You hear gunshots all day, every day," Hassain said. "As police, during the regime, if we saw someone carrying a gun, we'd fine them and confiscate the weapon."

Police are investigating the murders at the home of Abdul Amir Kamel, Ali's uncle, in Al-Shaab, a Shi'ite suburb on Baghdad's eastern edge. Blood coats the walls, carpets, and kitchen table of the house where the 12 people -- including four children under 6 -- were shot to death.

"This is the result of too many people having guns in their hands," said Sergeant Ali R. Karim, who gathered the bodies from the shoe factory owner's home. "There were always feuds before, but people didn't have weapons."

At the morgue, people collect autopsy reports as well as bodies. Coffins jut from taxi trunks and are strapped to buses and cars.

Among the crowd: a mother who alleged that her 21-year-old son had been killed at a checkpoint by US soldiers who mistook the VCR he was carrying for a weapon; a man whose 28-year-old brother allegedly was shot by American troops when he went into a yard at 4 a.m. to start a generator; a man whose brother, a retired policeman, was shot to death in a carjacking; and a man whose brother and brother-in-law were killed in a home robbery.

Ali and his relatives brought plywood coffins to collect the bodies of their family members. Pushing through a crowd several hundred-strong when his name was called, Ali entered the morgue's anteroom through the blue cast-iron sliding doors upon which a notice declared: "No tips greater than 10,000 dinars accepted. Please close the door behind you."

When he emerged, Ali was weeping convulsively, gripping his face in both hands, then looking skyward. "Father, father," he cried. As the family chanted a prayer, he tied his father's coffin to the roof of a 1979 Toyota Crown for the three-hour journey to Najaf.

"We cannot point our finger at anybody yet," Ali said of the rampage. "But Baghdad is no longer safe -- nowhere. There is killing on the streets in broad daylight."

Susan Milligan of the Globe staff contributed to this story.Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com.

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