Violence In Iraq Down, But Killing Indiscriminate

Rather than a war-torn country gripped by an insurgency, Iraq is starting to feel like a Latin American nation, riddled by assassinations and revenge killings. In fact, the murder rate of Guatemala City in 2009 was higher than that of Baghdad.

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In Iraq, violence is at its lowest level since the beginning of the U.S. invasion. In fact, the murder rate there is now on par with that of Brazil or Mexico, and it's much lower than in Colombia, Venezuela and even New Orleans or Baltimore.

But as NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad, the violence in Iraq is still unique and troubling.

KELLY McEVERS: A country's so-called murder rate is the number of violent deaths each year per every 100,000 people. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the death rate here was about 40. At the height of the sectarian fighting in 2006, it was around a hundred. Now, it's 14. Venezuela's rate is at least five times that. Guatemala's, three times.

John Drake monitors violence in Iraq for a London-based intelligence and security firm. He says the comparisons between Iraq and Latin American countries are interesting, but they don't tell the whole story.

Mr. JOHN DRAKE (Senior Risk Consultant, AKE Group): Perhaps the difference in risk is that in Iraq, a lot of the killings involve explosive attacks, which are much more indiscriminate.

McEVERS: In layman's terms, that means...

Mr. DRAKE: A lot of injuries. There are hundreds more people injured in Iraq as a result of attacks than, say, somewhere like Mexico.

McEVERS: It's an impersonal way to describe what happened to college student Karrar Sami Abed(ph). He was about to start a new job at a furniture shop in a neighborhood here in Baghdad. On his way to pick up the key to open the shop, a bomb went off.

Mr. KARRAR SAMI ABED: And I see my arm was bleeding, and I can't feel it.

McEVERS: Abed's left arm was hit by shrapnel that almost made it to his heart. He's now in physical therapy to get the arm moving again.

So why did that bomb go off? The sectarian war is by and large over. Sunni insurgents do manage to launch large-scale attacks, but only every few months; last fall at a Christian church and last month at a government building north of Baghdad. Both attacks involved hostages and suicide bombers and were carried out by the local branch of al-Qaida.

But al-Qaida isn't responsible for everything, neither are the Shiite militants who U.S. officials say are still behind attacks on American interests here.

Drake says Iraq has almost reached a state of post-insurgency, like in Northern Ireland, where after the bombs stopped going off, what remained was a high level of criminality.

Mr. DRAKE: There's a lot of impoverishment in Iraq. So people who have the means of conducting attacks to get hold of money, they're not going to be held back by concerns about being tried in a court of law. And they're not going to be too concerned about their civilian casualties either.

McEVERS: Mainly because they've been desensitized to killing after so many years of violence. Drake says rather than just killing for killing's sake, like terrorists do, many killers in Iraq these days are killing with a purpose.

Mr. DRAKE: Now, it's a lot more about political maneuvering and getting key parties in influential positions of power.

McEVERS: Especially as Iraq's lucrative oil sector comes online.

John Sloboda is a co-founder of Iraq Body Count, a London-based organization that's arguably kept one of the most accurate tallies of civilian deaths in Iraq since the U.S. invasion.

The war is over, Sloboda says. Now, the violence in Iraq is something more like...

Mr. JOHN SLOBODA (Co-Founder, Iraq Body Count): Low level but very clear and continuing and virulent political violence.

McEVERS: Even with this new and complicated description, Sloboda warns against comparing Iraq's violence to Latin America's.

Mr. SLOBODA: We have not sent troops into Mexico. We sent troops into Iraq. Therefore, what's happening now is a very complex result of a whole range of things, but one of those is our own actions.

(Soundbite of chanting)

McEVERS: It's the third day of mourning for a federal education official who was gunned down in his car last week. These kinds of political assassinations are becoming the norm in Iraq. After the service, we hear a cacophony of theories about why the man was killed.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: He was killed because he refused to be corrupt.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: He was killed by Americans who want to stir up trouble to justify keeping their soldiers here.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: He was killed by religious people because he was educated and secular.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Or maybe he was killed for his resources. Somebody wanted what he had.

Probably one of the most chilling things about the violence in Iraq is that the real reason could be all or none of the above.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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