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Baghdad is Swamped in the Smell of the Dead

by ROBERT FISK

The Independent

The smell of the dead pours into the street through the air-conditioning ducts. Hot, sweet, overwhelming. Inside the Baghdad morgue, there are so many corpses that the fridges are overflowing. The dead are on the floor. Dozens of them. Outside, in the 46C (114F) heat, Qadum Ganawi tells me how his brother Hassan was murdered.

“He was bringing supper home for our family in Palestine Street but he never reached our home. Then we got a phone call saying we could have him back if we paid $50,000 [£27,500]. We didn’t have $50,000. So we sold part of our home and many of our things and we borrowed $15,000 and we paid over the money to a man in a car who was wearing a keffiyeh scarf round his head.

“Then we got another phone call, telling us that Hassan was at the Saidiyeh police station. He was. He was blindfolded and gagged and he had two bullets in his head. They had taken our money and then they had killed him.”

There is a wail of grief from the yard behind us where 50 people are waiting in the shade of the Baghdad mortuary wall. There are wooden coffins in the street, stacked against the wall, lying on the pavement.

Old men–fathers and uncles–are padding them with grease-proof paper. When the bodies are released, they will be taken to the mosque in coffins and then buried in shrouds. There are a few women. Most stare at the intruding foreigner with something approaching venom. The statistics of violent death in Baghdad are now beyond shame. Almost a year ago, there were sometimes 400 violent deaths a month. This in itself was a fearful number to follow the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. But in the first 10 days of this July alone, the corpses of 215 men and women were brought to the Baghdad mortuary, almost all of them dead from gunshot wounds. In the second 10 days of this month, the bodies of a further 291 arrived. A total of 506 violent deaths in under three weeks in Baghdad alone. Even the Iraqi officials here shake their heads in disbelief. “New Iraq” under its new American-appointed Prime Minister is more violent than ever.

Qadum Ganawi puts his hand on my arm. “Listen,” he says. “My brother had two tiny children. One is only a year old. We have sold our house and borrowed $15,000. How can we ever pay this back? And we have nothing for it but the grief of losing my dear brother.

“He was a car importer so they thought he was rich. He wasn’t. And, you know, his wife is Syrian. She went to Syria for a holiday with the two babies. She is there now. She doesn’t know what has happened to her husband.”

Trucks are arriving in the street beside us, a pick-up and a small lorry with corpses for autopsy. Tony Blair says it is safer here. He is wrong. Every month is a massacre in Baghdad. Thieves, rapists, looters, American troops at checkpoints and on convoys, revenge killers, insurgents, they are shooting down the people of this city faster than ever.

One man was shot dead by a US soldier as he overtook their convoy on the way to his Baghdad wedding. We found out only because his marriage was to have been celebrated in a hotel occupied by journalists. Another death I discovered only when an old Iraqi friend called on me last week. He wanted me to help him leave Iraq. Quickly. Now.

“I work for the Americans at the airport but I think I’m done for if I stay.” Why? “Because my uncle worked at the airport for the Americans, just like me. My uncle was Abdullah Mohi. He was driving home the other night but they stopped him a hundred metres from his house. Then they took a knife and cut his throat. We found him drenched in blood at the steering wheel.” Abbas looks at me with dead eyes. “Should I go to Jordan? Help me.”

At the mortuary, a big, tall man, Amr Daher, walks up to me. “They killed one of our tribal leaders from the Dulaimi tribe,” he says. “This morning, right in the middle of Al-Kut Square, just a couple of hours ago.” Selman Hassan Salume was driving with his two teenage sons when three gunmen came alongside in a car and shot him dead. Both his sons were wounded, one seriously.

Hospital records tell only part of the story. In the blazing heat of an Iraqi summer, some families bury their dead without notifying the authorities. Some remain unidentified for ever, unclaimed. The Americans bring in corpses. When they do, there are no autopsies. The morticians will not say why. But the Ministry of Health has told doctors there should be no autopsies in these cases because the Americans will already have performed the operation.

Not long ago, six corpses arrived at the Baghdad mortuary after being brought in by US forces. Three were unidentified. Three had names but their families could not be found. All had suffered, according to the American records, “traumatic wounds to the head”, the normal phrase for gunshot wounds. There were no autopsies. Death is now so routine even the most tragic of deaths becomes a footnote. A US tank collides with a bus north of Baghdad. Seven civilians are killed. The Americans agree to open an investigation. It makes scarcely a paragraph in the local press. Four days ago, a US M1A1 Abrams tank crossing the motorway at Abu Ghraib collided with a car carrying two girls and their mother, all of whom were crushed to death. It did not even make the news in Baghdad.

No wonder the occupying powers–or the “international forces” as we must now call them–steadfastly refuse to reveal the statistics of Iraqi dead, only their own

Even the deaths we do know about during the past 36 hours make shocking reading. At Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, gunmen killed two Iraqi police officers travelling to their station. In Kirkuk, an Iraqi policeman, Luay Abdullah, was shot as he waited for a lift home after guarding an oil pipeline. A Kurdish woman and her two children were killed when someone sprayed their home in Kirkuk with gunfire. A Kurdish peshmerga guerrilla was murdered in a drive-by shooting.

A former government official was killed in Baghdad. Then yesterday afternoon, a senior civil servant at the Iraqi Interior Ministry in Baghdad was shot dead. In the town of Buhriz, hours of fighting between insurgents and US troops left 15 dead, according to the Americans. All, they said, were gunmen, although it almost always transpires that civilians are among the dead in such battles.

American documents say insurgent groups “have become more sophisticated and may be co-ordinating their anti-coalition efforts, posing an even more significant threat”. There is an increase in drive-by shootings. And, a chilling remark this, for all would-be travellers in and out of Baghdad, the Americans believe “recent attacks on air assets suggest that all type of aircraft, civilian, fixed-wing and military … are seen as potential targets of opportunity”.

So the war is getting worse. The casualties are growing by the week. And Mr Blair thinks Iraq is safer.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

CounterPunch Magazine

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