Fears Of Sectarian Violence Grow In Baghdad

Sep 6, 2014
Originally published on September 6, 2014 3:04 pm

The air in the Baghdad morgue is thick with the smell of death. There are perhaps two dozen corpses in black plastic bags lying around in the sweltering heat. One of them is burned and has its face exposed, white teeth stark against charred skin.

"The crisis began in June," says Zaid al Yousif, the director of the Medical Legal Center, which houses the morgue. "The number of victims in June increased, double to triple." Many of those bodies have marks of trauma, including blunt injuries, he says.

The increase began after Islamic extremists rampaged across northern Iraq, seizing territory. Sunni militants carried out massacres and suicide bombings and beheaded two U.S. journalists. They have their sights on Baghdad, though Iraqi forces with American support are fighting back.

There are fears the turmoil could fuel sectarian killing in the capital.

Yousif worked here during the worst sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad eight years ago, when 100 or more murdered, unidentified people were brought in every day. As Sunni extremists grabbed land this summer and Shiite militias re-activated to fight them, he feared those days might be back.

Fearing A Return Of The Darkest Days

Down a long corridor, past old printers and dusty public health posters, is Mahmoud Saffa. He documents unidentified bodies and shows images of the mutilated corpses to families whose loved ones have disappeared.

"That's so hard, the job in here, because we see this — you see this?" Saffa points at the screen behind him showing horrific images of bodies from the past few weeks. And the dead are only half the job.

"When you see the family and talk with them, you see the bodies," he says. "This mom said, 'I miss my child.' What you can do?"

Saffa, too, says that when he saw the numbers of dead rise, he feared the return of the darkest days of sectarian killing — though neither he nor Yousif will talk about the sensitive issue of whether more Sunnis come in than Shiites.

Analyst John Drake from the AKE Group, an international security company, monitors the issue.

"Sectarian-based violence — one-off killings, kidnappings — there's definitely anecdotal evidence to suggest its growth, unfortunately, the sort of abductions that used to happen in the bad days," Drake says.

That anecdotal evidence suggests there's been a rise in the abduction of Sunnis, although it can be hard to track because Sunni families sometimes don't report abductions to mostly Shiite security forces — who are now bolstered by militias.

A drumbeat of bombings and attacks on Shiite areas also continues. Two car bombs in the Shiite areas of Kadhimiya and Karrada killed 17 people on Sept. 4.

For Now, Some Respite

But, crucially, the Islamic State didn't take Baghdad, and this is not 2006. The morgue director says the number of bodies may even have gone down a bit now, and people are starting to allow themselves to feel just a hint of relief.

In al Zawra park, people go in the evenings to enjoy fountains, lawns and a giant new Ferris wheel covered in a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. Some people here say they're terribly afraid, but others are more optimistic, like 21-year-old Namir Mahmoud.

"In my opinion, Iraq is going to do good," he says. "Because maybe we are strong and the city is strong." He says the security forces are doing a good job and that Baghdadis would fight for their city "to the last bullet."

One Christian man, Basman Attesha, is out with his wife and baby boy. They'd made a plan to leave the city, but have put it off for now.

"There is danger — but it's hard," Attesha says. "When I think about leaving, it makes me cry." He slips into English as the tears come.

"It's my home," he says. "It's my home."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Islamic extremists now control much of the north and west of Iraq after rampaging across the region. Sunni militants have carried out massacres and suicide bombings. They have beheaded two U.S. journalists. They have their sights on Baghdad, but Iraqi forces, with U.S. support, are fighting back. The capital appears to be spared for now, but NPR's Alice Fordham reports on fears that turmoil could fuel sectarian killing. Now we should note that our story contains some graphic descriptions of violence that many will find disturbing.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The air here in the Baghdad morgue is just thick with the smell of death. There's perhaps two dozen corpses in black plastic bags lying around here in the sweltering heat. One of them has its face exposed. The body is charred. And it's one of a number of bodies that have been becoming at an increasing rate in recent months - burned, beaten, shot. The cleaner sluices down the mortuary slabs after another long day. And I meet Zaid al Yousif, the director here.

ZAID AL YOUSIF: The numbers of victims in June increased, doubled or tripled. so the number was about 30 in each day - trauma, blunt injury, all over the body - in the chest, in the arms, in the skull, in the head.

FORDHAM: Yousif worked during the worst sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad when a hundred or more murdered, unidentified people came in every day. As Sunni extremists grabbed land this summer and Shiite militias reactivated to fight them and take revenge, he feared those days might be back.

YOUSIF: We worried that there was worsening just like 2006.

FORDHAM: Down a long corridor past old printers and dusty public health posters is Mahmoud Saffa. He documents unidentified bodies and shows images of the mutilated corpses to families whose loved one has disappeared.

MAHMOUD SAFFA: We are afraid of return that days...

FORDHAM: Every time you saw one of these bodies coming in with...

SAFFA: Every time bodies shooting and everything. There - bodies burning.

FORDHAM: It's tough.

SAFFA: That's so hard, the job in here because we see this. You see this?

FORDHAM: He's pointing at the screen behind him. Horrific images of bodies from the past few weeks flash by, and the dead are only half the job.

SAFFA: And when you see the family and talk with them, you see the bodies - everyone in here he want to make family. He want to make someone love. This mom said I miss my child. What you can do?

FORDHAM: Neither man will talk about the sensitive issue of whether more Sunnis come in than Shiites. Analyst John Drake from the AKE security company monitors the issue.

JOHN DRAKE: Sectarian-based violence, one of killings, kidnappings, there's definitely anecdotal evidence to suggest its growth - unfortunately, the sort of a abductions that used to happen in the bad days.

FORDHAM: That anecdotal evidence suggests there's been a rise in the abduction of Sunnis. And a drum beat of bombings and attacks on Shiite areas also continues as on one recent evening in the Shiite neighborhood of Karada.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBING)

FORDHAM: But - it's a bit but - the Islamic State didn't take Baghdad. And this is not 2006. The morgue director says the number of bodies may even have gone down a bit now. And people are starting to allow themselves just a hint of relief.

In al Zawra Park, people go in the evenings to enjoy fountains, lawns and a giant new Ferris wheel covered in a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. Some people here say they're terribly afraid, but others are more optimistic. And I meet a Christian man, Basman Attesha, out with his wife and baby boy. They'd made a plan to leave the city, but have put off for now.

BASMAN ATTESHA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says there is danger, but it's hard. He says when he thinks about leaving, it makes him cry.

ATTESHA: It's my home. It's my home. Sorry.

FORDHAM: He brushes away his tears. His wife hugs me hard, and they head off into the Baghdad evening. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.