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May 4, 2006

Downplaying the Dead


by Dahr Jamail

Death in Iraq. It is relentless and incessant.

Know what it is like when scores of your fellow citizens are being killed every single day while the world proceeds unheedingly on? As a journalist, I've had but a taste of that poison during my eight months in Iraq. Try it out: be an Iraqi for a day, into your fourth year of being occupied, humiliated, tortured, and killed, doing all you can just to survive.

All communication with my Iraqi friends is punctuated by and smattered with their use of the words "praying," "God," and "Insha'Allah" (God willing). Perhaps there is need to invoke something else altogether?

"And all the dead air is alive. With the smell of America's God."
-
Harold Pinter, "War With Iraq"

On one of the days when multiple car bombs drained the blood and souls of scores in Baghdad, my closest friend wrote from there:

"Dahr, This is a very sad letter I'm writing you as a friend. My tears are coming down due to the humiliation, suffering, frustration, thwarting defeat, and discomfiture we the Iraqi are living in. Please let people know some of the news of what is happening to my country, my people, and my religion."

Death lurks everywhere in Iraq today. Keeping up with the numbers of dead is impossible. A doctor working at one of the larger hospitals in Baghdad recently called it a "camp" because the courtyard of the hospital is constantly filled with members of the Shia Badr militia, who continue to carry out their death-squad activities of killing Sunnis and rival Shia. "The Badr are all over the hospital, looking for people," said the doctor. "The injured brought here sometimes die before even reaching the ward, because the Badr are being obstacles for us. One of the men running our morgue was killed by the Badr. My friends are warning me to be careful, to keep my mouth shut."

The numbers are being hidden… and the Badr, operating out of the Ministry of Interior, which is funded by the U.S., are making sure the numbers remain shrouded.

Yet on Tuesday of this week, a spokesman at that same hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, of course, announced that in the last 48 hours alone Yarmouk Hospital had received 65 bodies, most of them slaughtered by death squads in execution-style murders. That day they had received 40 bodies, and on Monday, 25.

Iraqis are at far greater risk than Western journalists when they speak out about the true number of the dead. Those who speak out jeopardize their lives, like Faiq Bakir, the director of the Baghdad morgue. Bakir fled Iraq fearing for his life in early March, after reporting that over 7,000 people had been killed by death squads in recent months. In an article in the Guardian on March 2, it was made clear by John Pace, a UN official who worked in Iraq until February, that "The vast majority of bodies showed signs of summary execution – many with their hands tied behind their back. Some showed evidence of torture, with arms and leg joints broken by electric drills." He said that the killings had been ongoing long before the rampant bloodshed that followed the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra. The article added, "Mr. Pace, whose contract in Iraq ended last month, said many killings were carried out by Shia militias linked to the Interior Ministry run by Bayan Jabr, a leading figure in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)."

This past Saturday, I received information from the main morgue in Baghdad from a doctor there, name withheld for security reasons.

"Yesterday we received 36 bodies from the police pickups. All of them are unknown, without IDs, and we don't have refrigerators to put them in since all of ours are completely full already. So we had to keep them on the ground. 12 of them were handcuffed, most of them received between 2 and 10 bullets, some many more than 10. We are not going to put them into biopsy. Reason for their death is known. Most of them are between 20 to 30 years. … This is the number that was brought directly to us in one day, plus there are the dead who are sent to the hospitals. They will be put in the hospitals' morgues. We don't receive bodies from hospitals nowadays, because we don't have a place to keep them. I can't tell the exact number of killed people now, but it depends on the situation. But what I can assure you of is that since the shrine explosion, deaths have almost doubled. Daily, we receive between 70 to 80 bodies … you can see within these 40 minutes that I've talked with you, we received 9 bodies. Nearly every morning the count will be doubled twice this number, for the police find them at night. Most are either found in the streets or killed without sending them to hospitals. Four days ago we received 24 bodies in just 2 hours."

At this same morgue back in June 2004, I interviewed the aforementioned director, Dr. Faiq Bakir, who had to flee for his life. He said that their maximum holding capacity with the freezers was 90 bodies, and since January 2004 an average of well over 600 bodies each month had been brought there. The cause of death for at least half of these were gunshots or explosions. He also pointed out that those numbers did not include the heavy fighting areas of Fallujah and Najaf.

In addition, he told me, "We deal only with suspicious deaths, not deaths from natural causes. And so many bodies are buried that never go to a morgue anywhere."

According to Dr. Bakir, the rate of bodies brought to the Baghdad morgue even back then was three to four times greater than it ever was during the regime of Saddam Hussein. "I am sure that not all of the bodies that should come here do," he continued, before very diplomatically adding, "because our legal system has some problems right now."

Before the invasion, there was a coordinated system between Baghdad and the other governorates, which allowed his morgue to track deaths throughout the country, but this too had been smashed along with the rest of the infrastructure of his country.

More recently, a doctor at another hospital shared information that puts this in clearer perspective.

This past Sunday, a doctor from al-Numan hospital in the al-Adhamiya district of Baghdad reported to my source in Baghdad:

"Every major hospital has either one or two refrigerators, depending on the population of the area. As for Adhamiya, we have one refrigerator that holds a maximum of 10 bodies. Meanwhile, there are two refrigerators in the Shula hospital. We have not less than 18 major hospitals inside Baghdad, in addition to the main morgue, which has 6 refrigerators that contain 20 bodies each. In the emergencies we use refrigeration trucks to put bodies inside – this is very familiar to the main morgue. I went there a week ago. I have seen three refrigeration trucks inside the yard. They were filled with bodies. They keep the bodies in the main morgue for not more than 15 days, and if no one asks for them, they send the bodies to the cemetery administration to deal with them. This administration hands the bodies to some individuals who will bury them, mostly in Najaf or in the cemeteries around Baghdad."

Reuters recently ran a story titled, "In Baghdad, Some Killings Get Noticed, Some Don't." The story read, "When gunmen killed a sister of an Iraqi vice president on Thursday, it grabbed world headlines. A few streets away, however, another slaying, typical of hundreds in Baghdad in recent weeks, went all but unnoticed. Indeed it might never have been recorded had 73-year-old Khatab al-Ani not been shot outside the home of a journalist." The only part of this I would amend is "in recent weeks," because I know for a fact that random unreported killings have been the norm in the capital city of Iraq for over two years now.

Another Iraqi source of mine works for an Iraqi relief NGO in Fallujah. He told me that from the April and November 2004 U.S. assaults on Fallujah there were a minimum of 4,500 dead or missing (most of them dead), and "killings in Fallujah and Ramadi are a daily reality for us." According to this source, "Doctors in Fallujah estimate that an average of 3.5 people are being killed in Fallujah every day during 2006, while doctors we know in Baghdad estimate that the number there is between 150 and 200 per day."

He went on to say,

"The Lancet reported over 100,000 killed over a year ago. This was even before many of the crimes committed by U.S. troops, the Iraqi so-called army, and the government militias, who are all first-class killers, came to light. This brings the number to over 200,000 at the least. On the other hand, those people [Bush and those claiming less than 100,000 dead] not reporting the correct number of civilian casualties – that is a major crime in itself. It looks like they don't give a damn how many Iraqi people get killed."

Even the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) humanitarian news agency reported on April 26 that "More than 90 women become widows each day due to continuing violence countrywide, according to government officials and non-governmental organizations devoted to women's issues."

Another extremely telling point in the IRIN report is that "Although few reliable statistics are available on the total number of widows in Iraq, the Ministry of Women's Affairs says that there are at least 300,000 in Baghdad alone, with another 8 million throughout the country." The report said that at least 15 police officers' wives are widowed every day, and that local NGOs in Iraq said the situation had become much worse since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country, which has brought horrific violence on a level not seen before.

"Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing thousands of men during his 25 years of brutal rule," said Ibtissam Kamal in the IRIN report. Kamal, a member of a local organization that works on the issue but prefers institutional anonymity for security reasons, added, "But more people have died during the past three years, most of them men…."

The vast majority of deaths in Iraq are not being counted. Anyone who has spent any time there knows this. It was and remains common knowledge among my colleagues who worked on the streets, rather than those "embedding" or conducting "hotel journalism."

Several of my colleagues who have reported from Iraq feel the number of Iraqis killed during the occupation far exceeds 100,000.

"If one counts excess mortality from collapsed healthcare, polluted water, poverty, and the like – at least 100,000 Iraqis have died since the US invaded Iraq," Christian Parenti, author of the book The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, wrote me this week. Parenti, who has reported for over five months from Iraq and is a regularly contributor to The Nation magazine, added, "How many people have been killed by U.S. troops? How many in sectarian violence? It's impossible to say, but the point is this: Iraq has been destroyed by the U.S. invasion, and the process of its disintegration will go on for years. It is a horror no matter what the numbers are."

David Enders, an American freelance journalist who has spent 18 months reporting from Iraq and author of the book Baghdad Bulletin, told me yesterday, "I visited the Baghdad morgue, and they were receiving between 30-40 bodies every day. That didn't include car bombs and people who'd died for obvious reasons. That was more than a year ago, and that was just for Baghdad. I think it's probably safe to say that well over 100,000 Iraqis have died during the occupation."

Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk writes for the Independent in the UK and has reported from the region for over 30 years. He had this to say in a piece written on March 20 titled, "The Iraq War: Three Years On – The March of Folly That Has Led to a Bloodbath":

"The Iraqis? Well, they are lesser beings whose casualties cannot be revealed to us by the Iraqi ministry of health, on orders from the Americans and British; creatures whose suffering, far greater than our own, must be submerged in the democracy and freedom in which we are drowning them; whose casualties 'more or less' [mocking the infamous quote from George W. Bush] are probably nearer to 150,000. After all, if 1,000 Iraqis could die by violence last July – in Baghdad alone; and if they are being killed at 60 or 70 a day, then we have a near genocidal bloodbath on our hands. Iraqis, however, are now our Untermenschen for whom, frankly, we do not greatly care."

By far and away the survey that comes closest to the true number of dead in Iraq to date was the one conducted for The Lancet. Yet even Les Roberts, the lead author of that report and one of the world's top epidemiologists with the Center for International Emergency Disaster and Refugee Studies at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said this February that there might be as many as 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths generated by the U.S. invasion and occupation. So as not to skew the results, it is important to note that the survey did not include areas where major combat had occurred such as Fallujah, Najaf, and Sadr City – home to roughly 3 million Iraqis.

Any news agency, government, or other organization reporting anything less is actively attempting to hide the level of slaughter and mayhem and thus aiding and abetting the ongoing war crimes in Iraq.

My aforementioned friend in Fallujah is both frustrated and angry that most news agencies choose not to report the number of dead in Iraq more accurately. "I know there are some organizations who claim that they have an accurate count, which is less than 40,000 dead Iraqis," he wrote me recently. He went on to reference Bush Junior: "And as if that number itself isn't shameful enough for the U.S. and the whole world to see. Anyone claiming that low number who calls himself a humanitarian is a shameful guy."

"we leave civilian dead
as litter in the streets
ignored by us their numbers
unmarked as are their names"
- Labi Siffre

Anyone who's been in a war zone knows what it feels like to lie in bed at night listening to the cracking of gunfire, or the sound of thudding bombs, knowing that each report means death or maiming. It is true that the dead do not talk, but each shot fired or bomb detonated means someone is dead, and the killers know and must live with that knowledge forever – that they have killed a human being.

And we cannot escape that knowledge either: not hearing the sounds of death, but knowing that somewhere this instant in Iraq is a family that will have to suffer a loss in perpetuity.

Your silence will not protect you…
- Audre Lorde

This piece originally appeared on Truthout.org.

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    Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr Jamail writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    Dahr has spent a total of 5 months in occupied Iraq, and plans on returning in October to continue reporting on the occupation. One of only a few independent reporters in Iraq, Dahr will be using the DahrJamailIraq.com website and mailing list to disseminate his dispatches and will continue as special correspondent for Flashpoints Radio.

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