In Baghdad, a surge in homicides
The city's morgue has seen a 60 percent rise in gunshot killings over the past 10 days.
BAGHDAD — Hamid Turki winced as the emergency-room doctor inspected a wound in his hip. Under the glare of neon lights, his face was pale.
Mr. Turki was the eighth gunshot victim Mohammed Nouri had seen by midnight Wednesday at the Al Kindi Hospital in central Baghdad. The doctor stepped back from his patient and sighed. "We don't have even 1 percent security now," he said.
Five weeks after US troops entered Iraq's capital, reconstruction has taken a backseat to security. "There are a number of problems, in particular the problem of law and order in Baghdad," L. Paul Bremer, the new chief civilian administrator for Iraq, said yesterday. He appeared to be introducing a get-tough policy, pledging the US would beef up infantry and military police forces.
Mr. Bremer's comments acknowledged a reality Faik Amin Bakr understands all too well. On Wednesday night, the director of the Baghdad morgue counted through his register of violent deaths. There have been 124 over the past 10 days, he says, almost all gunshot homicides. That marks a 60 percent rise over the previous 10-day period, despite claims by US officials here that the security situation is improving.
"We are aggressively targeting looters" as they turn their attention from public buildings to their fellow citizens, said Maj. Gen. Buford "Buff" Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division that has occupied the capital. "We have refocused our soldiers." (see related story)
But in a city where armed carjackings and armed robberies are increasingly common, where many parents do not send their children to school for fear they will be abducted, and where gunfire is heard constantly, violence is claiming growing numbers of victims.
"The trend is going up because there is no control," Dr. Bakr complains. "Everybody can carry a gun in his pocket."
As Turki lay on a gurney in the Al Kindi emergency room, a pressure pad taped over his injury, gunfire crackled on the other side of the hospital wall. Doctors and orderlies sitting outside in the breezy courtyard laughed nervously and shrugged.
An hour later, they jumped up as a Red Crescent ambulance drove in. Flinging the doors open, they pulled out a man in white running shorts and brown T-shirt.
Nadim Zeidan had been walking with his brother and uncle, he told the doctors who inspected his shattered leg, when unseen men opened fire on them.
His uncle was in critical condition at another hospital, shot in the neck. His brother was dead, according to a doctor who had brought Mr. Zeidan to Al Kindi. Zeidan explained that his father had been a prominent member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
"There have been revenge killings, and I'd expect we have not seen the last of it," Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, chief of US ground forces in Iraq, warned last week.
Independent observers expect worse. As more and more mass graves are discovered in Iraq, and people find out exactly what happened to their relatives who disappeared, "our prediction is ... there will be a huge spike in revenge killings," says Saman Zia-Zarifi, a researcher here with Human Rights Watch.
US authorities here are also worried that Baathists themselves are "actively and aggressively seeking to defeat, discredit, and disrupt coalition operations," General McKiernan said Wednesday.
Senior US officials have said the Iraqi power grid has been a prime target. Key insulators and power lines have been shot out, and parts have been looted from power plants and relay stations.
"These groups continue to intimidate and terrorize their fellow citizens," McKiernan added.
Most US forces would target them, not ordinary looters, he said. But thieves will henceforth be held for at least three weeks, he announced, rather than being let go after two days, as had been the case. Those using violence will be held until the court system is in a position to try them.
General Blount, however, denied reports that soldiers had been given orders to shoot looters as a deterrent measure. "Unless a soldier's life is threatened, we are not going out aggressively shooting looters," he told reporters.
That reluctance to use force to stop looters threatening other Iraqis is a dereliction of the coalition's duties as an occupying power under international law, argues Mr. Zia-Zarifi.
"The obligation of an occupying power is to protect the people it is occupying," he says. "The overriding policy cannot be force protection. It has to be protecting the people of Iraq."
At 1:45 a.m., just as Mr. Zeidan's leg had been attended to, an orange, Russian-built Moskvitch sedan rattled up to the doors of Al Kindi's emergency room. From the front passenger seat jumped a man holding a bloodstained sheet to his head.
Racing round the car, he helped pull out two men slumped in the back seat. One, his left eye swollen from a gunshot wound, muttered softly to himself. The other, wounded in the torso, shouted angrily.
As doctors raced the two men on gurneys into spartan curtained cubicles, a man at the reception desk put his head in his hands. "Oh, Iraq," he groaned.
Friends of the wounded men, who arrived quickly in a smart white Oldsmobile Cutlass Clera, said they had all been drinking on the porch of one of their homes on Rashid Street when US soldiers opened fire on them.
The doctors who treated them were skeptical. The wounds appeared to have been caused by pistol shots at close quarters, they said, not by high-velocity rounds fired from an M-16. And all the men in the group were wearing new sneakers on their feet - ideal for running - not the sandals commonly worn by Iraqi men.
"They are all liars and thieves," muttered Dr. Nouri as a colleague went to work on one of the men.
The streets of Baghdad at night until now have been a no-man's-land after the 11 p.m. curfew that hardpressed US troops have enforced only spottily. The Iraqi police force, which McKiernan is trying to reestablish, does not work after dark.
Wednesday night, however, saw the launch of what Bremer called "aggressive patrolling at night," by US soldiers. Three hundred military patrols in Baghdad Wednesday night arrested 92 criminals, he said.
Seven thousand Iraqi policemen have reported for duty, McKiernan said Wednesday, but almost all their stations have been looted or burned "and we haven't put them all to work."
Even those who are on the streets are ineffectual against looters, Iraqis say, because they are not armed and command no respect.
"The police don't feel safe. They are petrified," says Zia-Zafiri, who has interviewed scores of police officers. "They were not police as we understand them, they were enforcers. Without guns they feel vulnerable. And they know that if they arrest somebody, that person will be back on the street soon looking for revenge."
The doctors at Al Kindi could not do much for Haidar Khassem, whose four bullet wounds in the chest require the attention of a chest specialist. Nor could they help Mohammed Taher, who needed neurosurgery.
The hospital's sole ambulance driver could not be found, so Mr. Taher's friends drove him away in the Oldsmobile.
At 3.20 a.m., Mr. Khassem's friends took him to a chest hospital nearby. Still angry, Khassem pulled out a tube in his chest that a surgeon had implanted.
The surgeon shrugged, and let him leave.
Like many Baghdadis, the doctors show little sympathy for the patients they believe to be looters. They try to save their lives, of course, but they are disgusted by the wave of theft that has engulfed their city.
"If the Americans would shoot two or three looters, everything would stop," says Bakr, the director of the Baghdad morgue.
He adds that few offenders have seemed worried about consequences.
"No one feels there is any punishment, and if you escape punishment, you do anything you want, especially the criminals who Saddam let out of jail" before the war, he says.
"People are asking for the old police force to return," comments Zia-Zafiri. "Even though they didn't like them, they think they would be better than nothing.
"The tragedy," he continues, "is that the insecurity creates a climate where people are clamoring for the old enforcers to be brought back."