Baghdad Pays the Price

Statistics unpublished until today reveal the stark facts: 242 people have died in Baghdad in just over three weeks, almost all from bullet wounds. It is an epidemic, and it is getting worse.

But the late-night scenes in a city hospital tell the real story of the postwar price that the Iraqi capital is paying for the occupying forces’ failure to live up to their responsibility to make the streets safe.

At 3.20am yesterday, Haider Khassem’s friends stuffed him half-dead into the back seat of a car. Doctors at al-Kindi hospital’s casualty department had done all they could to treat the four bullet wounds in his chest with which he had been brought to them 90 minutes earlier, a hefty young man thrashing in agony and spouting blood like a clubbed seal. They concluded he needed urgent treatment by specialists at a cardiothoracic hospital 20 minutes away. The driver of al-Kindi’s only remaining ambulance–the other three have been stolen or looted–had disappeared. So the dangerously ill Mr Khassem was bundled into a clapped-out, rust-bitten orange Moskavich 408. A friend held his intravenous drip out of the back window. In the front seat sat Salah

Fayek, his head wrapped in a turban of bandages to staunch an injury inflicted in the same attack.

Thus, the maimed and wounded set off into the benighted streets of Baghdad, a city under curfew and echoing with sporadic gunfire, to try to save a life.

Fifty minutes earlier–the same. A third victim, Mohammed Tahab, was squeezed into the back of a white Oldsmobile Cutlass, his eyes swollen like plums from a bullet through the brain, his green Iraqi Olympic tracksuit

covered with large blots of blood. “I just don’t think he’ll make it,” said Dr Rebar Nouri, al-Kindi’s resident duty doctor, as he watched the vehicle pull away past American soldiers guarding the hospital gate–again with an arm out of the car window holding aloft an IV drip.

Amazingly, both men were still alive yesterday afternoon. Doctors said Mr Tahab was brain-damaged but clinging to life, although only just. Mr Khassem was stable.

The exact circumstances of their shooting was impossible to clarify–their relatives alleged it was American soldiers, but this was not confirmed–yet such scenes have become the norm here.

Dr Fa’ak Amin Bakr, director of the city mortuary, says 242 people have died in the past 25 days, of whom more than nine out of 10 had been shot. He says that before the invasion Baghdad had an average of one death a day caused by gunshot wounds.

Battles between looters and score-settling from the Saddam years have taken hold, fuelled by a security vacuum that owes much to a decision by Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, to invade and occupy Iraq with minimum troop numbers–two divisions short, say well- informed sources within the Allies’ reconstruction team.

They are the by-product, too, of the failure of the Allies to coax the Baghdad police to return to work in sufficient numbers. Most of the Iraqi officers who have returned have yet to come out of their police stations.

And homicide figures are going up. The 124 who died from bullet wounds in the past 10 days is a rise of 60 per cent on the previous 10-day period.

At al-Kindi hospital, 13 people were brought inwith bullet injuries in the 24 hours to yesterday morning. Their combined stories spoke much about present-day Baghdad: there was an 18-year-old girl shot by her brother, who had apparently been given a weapon by his arms-dealing father. She died in the hospital. A six-year-old boy who–according to a doctor who treated him–was hit by a bullet while standing in front of his house, arrived at hospital with a “chest full of blood”. There was Nadim Zeidan, shot in the leg in what a relative told a doctor was a revenge attack against his Baathist father in which his brother was killed. Hamid Turki, 28, came in after a bullet fired in a tribal dispute shattered his hip bone. And so the list continued.

This is the mess that Washington has deployed Paul “Jerry” Bremer, a protA(C)gA(C) of Henry Kissinger, to sort out. Unlike Jay Garner, the man he replaces as Iraq’s chief administrator, he has been assigned full authority over the Allied administration in Iraq.

At his first press conference in Baghdad yesterday, Mr Bremer sounded a bullish note, saying 300 suspected criminals had been thrown into Iraq’s reopened jails this week–92 on Wednesday alone. The “serious law and order problem” in the capital was a top priority, he said. He noted that 100,000 inmates were released from Iraqi prisons in October by Saddam Hussein. “It’s time those people are put back in jail,” he said.

This peculiar endorsement of Saddam’s judicial system will not endear Mr

Bremer to human and civil rights activists. Less likely to object are the desperate doctors of Baghdad who want something to be done before hundreds more end up in the mortuary.