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,
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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.