Baghdad Deadlier Than Ever

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Posted by Sadie from D006173.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Wednesday, August 27, 2003 at 4:53PM :

August 26, 2003

Baghdad Deadlier Than Ever
A Cororner's Viewpoint


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.

-- Sadie
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