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[casi] A Cororner's Viewpoint - Sarmad S Ali

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.

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