Uncertainty and horror in Baghdad

Things are so bad here now, the TV warns us not to trust the police. And more and more people, like my cousin, must pay terrible visits to the morgue.

By Riverbend
April 3, 2006 2:55PM (UTC)
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I sat late last night switching between Iraqi channels (the half dozen or so I sometimes try to watch). It's a late-night tradition for me when there's electricity, to see what the Iraqi channels are showing. Generally speaking, there still isn't a truly "neutral" Iraqi channel. The most popular ones are backed and funded by the different political parties currently vying for power. This became particularly apparent during the period directly before the elections.

I was trying to decide between a report on bird flu on one channel, a montage of bits and pieces from various latmiyas [Shiite processions in which the faithful flog themselves] on another channel and an Egyptian soap opera on a third channel. I paused on the Sharqiya channel, which many Iraqis consider to be a reasonably toned channel (and which during the elections showed its support for Allawi in particular). I was reading the little scrolling news headlines on the bottom of the page. The usual -- mortar fire on an area in Baghdad, an American soldier killed here, another one wounded there, 12 Iraqi corpses found in an area in Baghdad, etc. Suddenly, one of them caught my attention and I sat up straight on the sofa, wondering if I had read it correctly.


E. was sitting at the other end of the living room, taking apart a radio he later wouldn't be able to put back together. I called him over with the words, "Come here and read this -- I'm sure I misunderstood" He stood in front of the television and watched the words about corpses and Americans and puppets scroll by and when the news item I was watching for appeared, I jumped up and pointed. E. and I read it in silence and E. looked as confused as I was feeling.

The line said:

وزارة الدفاع تدعو المواطنين الى عدم الانصياع لاوامر دوريات الجيش والشرطة الليلية اذا لم تكن برفقة قوات التحاالعاملة في تلك المنطقة

The translation: "The Ministry of Defense requests that civilians do not comply with the orders of the army or police on nightly patrols unless they are accompanied by coalition forces working in that area."


That's how messed up the country is at this point.

We switched to another channel, the "Baghdad" channel (allied with Muhsin Abdul Hameed and his group), and they had the same news item, but instead of the general "coalition forces" they had "American coalition forces." We checked two other channels. Iraqiya (pro-Dawa) didn't mention it and Forat (pro-SCIRI) also didn't have it on its news ticker.

We discussed it today as it was repeated on another channel.


"So what does it mean?" my cousin's wife asked as we sat gathered at lunch.

"It means if they come at night and want to raid the house, we don't have to let them in," I answered.

"They're not exactly asking your permission," E. pointed out. "They break the door down and take people away -- or have you forgotten?"


"Well, according to the Ministry of Defense, we can shoot at them, right? It's trespassing -- they can be considered burglars or abductors," I replied.

The cousin shook his head, "If your family is inside the house, you're not going to shoot at them. They come in groups, remember? They come armed and in large groups -- shooting at them or resisting them would endanger people inside of the house."

"Besides that, when they first attack, how can you be sure they don't have Americans with them?" E. asked.


We sat drinking tea, mulling over the possibilities. It confirmed what has been obvious to Iraqis since the beginning -- the Iraqi security forces are actually militias allied to religious and political parties.

But it also brings to light other worrisome issues. The situation is so bad on the security front that the top two ministries in charge of protecting Iraqi civilians cannot trust each other. The Ministry of Defense can't even trust its own personnel, unless they are "accompanied by American coalition forces."

It really is difficult to understand what is happening lately. We hear about talks between Americans and Iran over security in Iraq, and then the American ambassador in Iraq accuses Iran of funding militias inside of the country. Today there are claims that Americans killed between 20 and 30 men from Sadr's militia in an attack on a husseiniya [Shiite religious centers named after the imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed] yesterday. The Americans are claiming that responsibility for the attack should be placed on Iraqi security forces (the same security forces they are constantly commending).


All of this directly contradicts claims by Bush and other American politicians that Iraqi troops and security forces are in control of the situation. Or maybe they are in control -- just not in a good way.

They've been finding corpses all over Baghdad for weeks now -- and it's always the same: holes drilled in the head, multiple shots or strangulation, like the victims were hanged. Execution, militia style. Many of the people were taken from their homes by security forces -- police or special army brigades. Some of them were rounded up from mosques.

A few days ago we went to pick up one of my female cousins from college. Her college happens to be quite close to the local morgue. E., our cousin L., and I all sat in the car, which, due to traffic, we parked slightly farther away from the college to wait for our other cousin. I looked over at the commotion near the morgue.

There were dozens of people -- mostly men -- standing around in a bleak group. Some of them smoked cigarettes, others leaned on cars or pickup trucks. Their expressions varied -- grief, horror, resignation. On some faces, there was an anxious look of combined dread and anticipation. It's a very specific look, one you will find only outside the Baghdad morgue. The eyes are wide and bloodshot, as if searching for something, the brow is furrowed, the jaw is set and the mouth is a thin frown. It's a look that tells you they are walking into the morgue, where the bodies lay in rows, and that they pray they do not find what they are looking for.


The cousin sighed heavily and told us to open a couple of windows and lock the doors -- he was going to check the morgue. A month before, his wife's uncle had been taken away from a mosque during prayer -- they've yet to find him. Every two days, someone from the family goes to the morgue to see if his body was brought in. "Pray I don't find him ... or rather ... I just -- we hate the uncertainty." My cousin sighed heavily and got out of the car. I said a silent prayer as he crossed the street and disappeared into the crowd.

E. and I waited patiently for H., who was still inside the college, and for L., who was in the morgue. The minutes stretched and E. and I sat silently -- small talk seeming almost blasphemous under the circumstances. L. came out first. I watched him tensely and found myself chewing away at my lower lip, "Did he find him? Inshalla he didn't find him" I said to no one in particular. As he got closer to the car, he shook his head. His face was immobile and grim, but behind the grim expression, we could see relief. "He's not there. Hamdulilah [Thank God]."

"Hamdulilah." E. and I repeated the words in unison.

We all looked back at the morgue. Most of the cars had simple, narrow wooden coffins on top of them, in anticipation of the son or daughter or brother. One frenzied woman in a black abaya was struggling to make her way inside, two relatives holding her back. A third man was reaching up to untie the coffin tied to the top of their car.


"See that woman -- they found her son. I saw them identifying him. A bullet to the head." The woman continued to struggle, her legs suddenly buckling under her, her wails filling the afternoon, and although it was surprisingly warm that day, I pulled at my sleeves, trying to cover my suddenly cold fingers.

We continued to watch the various scenes of grief, anger, frustration and, every once in a while, an almost tangible relief as someone left the morgue having not found what they dreaded most to find -- eyes watery from the smell, the step slightly lighter than when they went in, having been given a temporary reprieve from the worry of claiming a loved one from the morgue.


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Iraq Middle East National Security