September 26, 2004
BODY COUNT

Killings Surge in Iraq, and Doctors See a Procession of Misery

By ALEX BERENSON

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Business is booming at the Baghdad morgue.

Before the war, before the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, seven or eight bodies arrived each day at this nondescript building in northeastern Baghdad for autopsies. Most deaths resulted from car crashes or other accidents. Killings were rare, and gun violence rarer still, a testament to the monopoly that Mr. Hussein held on the use of force.

Now the paper-and-cardboard ledgers where the autopsies are logged are torn from overuse. On an average day, the morgue receives 20 to 25 bodies, the human cost of the post-war wave of crime and insurgency engulfing the city.

"The unexpected change is an increase in bullet injuries," said Dr. Abdul Razzaq al-Obeidi, one of the morgue's chief doctors. "Mostly vengeance." In the first eight months of this year nearly 3,000 people in municipal Baghdad, which has about five million residents, have died from gunshot wounds - nearly all homicides, Dr. Obeidi said. A surge of killings in September has only increased the pressure.

The murder rate rose this summer, defying more than a year of promises from the American authorities about the increasing effectiveness of the Iraqi police and security forces.

The Baghdad Forensics Institute, which runs the morgue, has added doctors, but still the bodies pile up. On a recent Monday, one autopsy room was filled with bodies, while others awaited examination on stretchers that lined the walls in a grim, unrefrigerated waiting area.

"Sometimes we don't have anyplace to keep the bodies in the refrigerators because it's full," said Dr. Muthana Abdullah, a postgraduate student completing his final year at the forensics institute, which conducts autopsies and medical examinations used in court cases in the Baghdad area.

The parade of bodies is depressing and dehumanizing, Dr. Abdullah said. He worries that seeing so much death will one day leave him traumatized. "I am a human being, like you," he said. "It's very difficult, but it's my work."

Besides doing autopsies, the doctors at the institute specialize in the examinations of women accused by their husbands of not being virgins when they married, a serious charge that can lead to an annulment.

The doctors also examine men accused of homosexuality, a criminal offense in Iraq. They must also approve all marriages of girls 14 or younger, verifying that they have reached puberty and are physically capable of intercourse.

Nearly every case seems to stop at least briefly in the office of Dr. Obeidi, who is the deputy director of the forensics institute and oversees autopsies and marriage examinations.

A 52-year-old man with wide plastic glasses and a quick smile, Dr. Obeidi seems to savor his job, despite the daily procession of misery. Asked about unusual cases, he recounted the case of a doctor at the institute who had been killed by an unusually large bullet to the liver. He disappeared into another office for a moment, reappearing with a blue plastic envelope. "A very large-caliber bullet," he said, unwrapping the slug on his desk.

Dr. Obeidi says his biggest complaint is that he and his fellow doctors are not paid enough. He receives $440 a month. Iraqi judges are paid $900 to $1,400 a month, he said. Forensic work is vital to court cases, so he should be paid as much as a judge, he said.

All the doctors, including those who conduct the vaginal examinations, are male, although a female nurse is present during those exams, Dr. Obeidi said.

Before the war, the institute received 200 to 250 bodies a month, with fewer than 20 gunshot deaths, said to Abbas Mustafa, who keeps records at the morgue. In January 2003, the morgue received 246 bodies, including those of 17 gunshot victims.

The deaths began to soar in April 2003, when looting racked Baghdad, and have remained high ever since. Including killings and accidental deaths, the morgue has performed 5,239 autopsies so far in 2004, an average of about 650 a month, with more than half of them gunshot victims.

The highest monthly total ever came in August 2003, when the morgue took in 875 bodies, including 522 gunshot deaths, Mr. Mustafa said. Last month, 696 corpses arrived for autopsy, including 386 gunshot victims. Men make up about 90 percent of the shooting victims, he said.

Before the war the morgue had only three doctors, Dr. Obeidi said. Now, with the collapse of the Iraqi Army, eight former military doctors have joined the staff, enabling the morgue to perform autopsies quickly.

The forensic workers appeared to treat the bodies with respect. They are typically covered with blankets or left naked.

The building has a single set of doors and flies buzz freely inside it. Workers wear no protective gear, uniforms or even gauze face masks, although some wear gloves and ill-fitting white boots. The heavy stench of bodies fills the building.

In an adjoining building a few feet away, two police officers kept watch on a half-dozen women accused of prostitution who were awaiting examination. At least two of the women had been found in the International Zone, the area in the center of Baghdad that is secured by the American military and is home to the Iraqi government and the United States Embassy.

In a room at the end of the hall equipped with an examination table, a young girl awaited an inspection, accompanied by her mother and sisters. The procedure is painless and takes only a few minutes, said Nedhal Hussein, the chief nurse.

"I try to calm them down," Ms. Hussein said. "Then we test them and they go. That's it."

The inspections are better than autopsies, Dr. Abdullah said. "There are so many problems we face here every day," he said. "The department of the living is better than the department of the dead."