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Iraq’s Death Toll, the View of a Baghdad Coroner

by SARMAD S. ALI

Everyday, women mill about crying outside the
courtyard of Baghdad’s Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bab
al Muadam Square, so overcome with grief that they are unable
to stand. The men stand grim and silent, the sleepless nights
showing on their faces. But behind the doors of, the day is
just beginning as the daily toll of postwar Iraq’s crime wave
gets counted.

Coroners have to work overtime these
days to keep up with the stream of bodies that comes through
the everyday. Five coroners distributed along the five benches
of the morgue are barely able to keep up. More than ten corpses
lay around in the room as if they were in an abattoir, with
chairs for students to study the place and the events taking
place there. About 10 autopsies a day are completed here as partially
decomposed bodies pile up on autopsy tables and along the office
floors awaiting final approval for burial. From the outside,
the smell of the room is enough to make one retch; inside the
stench is simply overwhelming.

“Neither during the war nor during
the previous two wars has this happened,” said Dr. Qais
Hassan Salman, a specialist in forensic medicine at the Institute.
“The number of dead is absolutely unbelievable, and I’m
just speaking of Baghdad alone. God knows what’s happening
elsewhere.” Coalition officials have claimed that Baghdad’s
crime rates are comparable to any major US city. But in fact,
judging by coroner’s reports, the Iraqi capital’s homicide rate
exceeds that of even the most violent American cities several
times over. Even before the war began, Baghdad was one of the
most dangerous places to live in the world. This year’s records
mark more than a doubling in violent deaths.

“The number of deaths that need
proper autopsy now is absolutely unbelievable and I just speak
of Baghdad,” says Dr Salman, “God knows what is happening
in other provinces.”

To draw an overall comparison between
the morgue’s records and homicide rates is difficult. Deaths
that are apparently due to intoxication, stabbing, road accidents,
shooting, burning, drowning, or other causes are all referred
to in the morgue ledgers as potential murders.

The population the morgue services is
also broad. Of Iraq’s cities, only Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and
Baquba have forensic medicine departments. So the Baghdad morgue
must service large swathes of the center, south and west of the
country.

“There is no other place in Baghdad
except this one and in the past it was enough to control the
number of autopsy cases because the number in the past was more
manageable than now,” Salman noted. He added that more than
eleven governorates still have no forensic departments and in
most cases the corpses are brought to Baghdad to be autopsied.
” In spite of the fact that three military doctors were
sent here from al-Rasheed military hospital, there is a dearth
of coroners that exceeds the institute’s capacity. Previously
coroners received no more than two or three carcasses whereas
now each dissector at least works on ten carcasses per a day,”
Salman said.

Dr. Faiq Ameen Bekir, director of the
Institute, emphasized that the number of deaths has risen noticeably
since the end of the war, especially cases of shooting deaths
or explosions of unexploded cluster bombs. In the past, however,
the number of gunshot death cases was far smaller compared with
the large numbers now.

In June of this year, 626 people died
from bullet wounds; in July the number was 734. In contrast,
there were only about 50 homicides per month in New York City
in 2002. These numbers are a significant leap from the year before
– but not an overwhelming one. Indeed, death by bullet represents
only a doubling of shooting deaths last year during the days
of the former. In all there were 368 and 471 gun deaths in June
or July 2002, respectively.

Bullet injuries come from three causes,
said Dr. Salman. The most obvious are murders, many of them committed
in carjacking and other violent robberies. But people caught
in crossfire and people hit by celebratory fire are another important
part of the statistical body. In fact, on special occasions
such as the victories of the national football team, or more
recently, the death of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay,
celebratory fire causes a spike in gun deaths. Meanwhile, suicides
have remained relatively rare, said Salman.

“Most of the dead that come here
are young males, but sometimes whole families are killed – such
as in the al-Suleikh incident two weeks ago, when a generator
blew up near an American patrol and the Americans opened fire
at random,” Salman says. A family of four was killed in
the incident.

Sarmad S. Ali
writes for Iraq Today.

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