Violent deaths fill Baghdad hospitals and central morgue a year on
BAGHDAD (AFP) Mar 23, 2004
Like a dance macabre, cars pull up at Baghdad's central morgue daily to deliver the remains of dozens of people killed by gunfire as mourners leave the building with the coffins of loved ones.

The number of violent deaths in Iraq has risen dramatically since the end of the US-led war in April, a phenomenon never seen during the dictatorial rule of ousted president Saddam Hussein, hospital directors and pathologists said.

"Before the war we used to receive about 16 cases monthly of deaths: murder victims, people killed in traffic accidents or during weddings, sports events and funerals," when trigger-happy Iraqis use guns to express their emotions, said Faik Amin Baker, the director of Baghdad's Institute of Legal Pathology for the past 14 years.

"In February we received 570 cases and of those, 254 were victims of firearms while 46 died from injuries inflicted during explosions," he said, while the toll for January was 636 dead, mostly from gunfire.

This toll, he said, did not include several dozen people killed that month in bomb attacks in the Muslim Shiite holy cities of Najaf, Karbala, south of the Iraqi capital, and at a Baghdad mosque.

"Weapons are everywhere in Iraq and there is no control over them. The criminals are roaming the streets freely and include (hundreds) that Saddam released from prison in the run-up to the war," he said.

The victims, on whose bloodied bodies Baker and his staff of 10 pathologists have performed autopsies, were killed by thugs, including car-jackers and armed robbers, or in settling of accounts or mafia-style vendettas.

"We are not concerned by the stories behind these deaths. We deal with their cases from a technical viewpoint, but it is clear that the violence we are witnessing is a reflection of the security vaccuum," he said.

A dapper, mustachioed man with salt-and-pepper hair, Baker said the situation in post-war Iraq "is not encouraging" and "increases my anxiety".

"I keep on telling my family and my friends to be careful. I tell myself to be careful and we leave it up to God," he said.

In the meantime Baker, who is also a general practitioner, has closed his private clinic out of fear that one day an angry patient might pull a gun.

Across town at the Ibn Nafiss Hospital, director Mohammed Kaho Abbud admits that during the war and in the ensuing months he carried a weapon, a Russian-made Makarov pistol "for psychological support".

"I never used it but I was determined to if I needed to protect my live or the lives of my patients," he said, adding that in those months men often burst into hospitals forcing doctors at gunpoint to care for an injured relative.

Ibn Nafiss is a general cardiac surgery center but its emergency room has seen more than its share of patients and victims of gunfire.

"During the 20-day war, we did not admit a single pregnant woman. But we provided neurosurgery and dealt with thoracic injuries caused by firearms or burns from explosions," said Abbud.

Jassem Mohammad Jabbar is only 38 but he already feels like a "dead man".

Less than two months ago this neurosurgeon was appointed director of the 203-bed Kindi Hospital which serves a large swathe of impoverished areas of northeast Baghdad.

"During his (24-year) reign, Saddam terrorised the people. His policies gave birth to 20 million Saddams and now instead of having to deal with patients we wage a daily battles against criminals," he said.

The US-led coalition plans to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqis at the end of June but expects to retain a military presence in the country until a government and a fully trained security force is in place.

At the central morgue of Baghdad the dance of death continues.

A white police pick-up truck pulls up to the back gate to deliver the body of a young man shot in the chest as an impromptu funeral procession leaves the compound, women wailing and men chanting Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest).