Inside Baghdad's Overflowing Central Morgue

Baghdad's accelerating murder rate is overwhelming the city's main morgue. There are too many bodies and more coming in every day. Last month, 1,600 bodies were received; the month before, 1,400. NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Hamit Dardagan is co-founder of Iraqbodycount.org. That's a website that attempts to track the number of civilians killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. He joins us from London, England. Mr. Dardagan, so glad you're with us.

Mr. HAMIT DARDAGAN (Co-founder, Iraqbodycount.org): Good to be with you.

NORRIS: What is your current estimate?

Mr. DARDAGAN: Well, at the moment, the deaths that we've recorded so far, and I must emphasize right away that this is only the deaths that have been reported, and are known about so far. This doesn't apply to deaths that haven't been recorded, and at the moment it ranges roughly between 39,000 and about 43,500.

But I have to say that, as more figures are added, including figures from the Baghdad morgue that have emerged over the last two months - I mean we will very soon exceed 45,000 in the higher range of our estimate.

NORRIS: That range, between 39,000/43,000, that's quite a large chasm; what accounts for that?

Mr. DARDAGAN: Most of it has to do with uncertainty on our part, about whether or not the people were civilians or not. Our count is purely of noncombatants, except under special circumstances. For example, when someone is maybe a combatant but has been captured and executed after capture. At which point they are actually POW's in our view.

NORRIS: How do you know if they're a civilian or if they're an insurgent or a combatant?

Mr. DARDAGAN: Well, most of the time we find that the only way to do so is from the reports themselves.

NORRIS: Are you talking about news reports? Or some sort of official report issued by the morgue or the health ministry?

Mr. DARDAGAN: Well, we get all of our data from media based reports, but then the media themselves aren't just limited to what there own journalist see, or can report directly from the scene of incidents. But rather they themselves also tend to go to morgues or hospitals and the police and so forth and get their figures from them.

And we have to be very careful that we don't count deaths twice, so we have to go back over all the incidents that we have already entered into our database and make sure that there is none that it's overlapping; we eliminate those first before adding sort of cumulative data, as we call it, from places like morgues.

NORRIS: When you look at your database, are you able to discern any trends or things might not be reflected in the news media?

Mr. DARDAGAN: Well, I think one of the trends that has been quite alarming over the last year has been the level of - what you might call secret killings. That's to say, people who have not been killed due to any particular incident that one knows about specifically but who've just been assassinated; you just have bodies turning up in rivers or dumped by roadsides and so forth.

It's actually one of the things that has really pushed up the deaths recorded by the Baghdad city morgue, because it's precisely those kinds of deaths that they need to get involved in, the kind of deaths that are just - you know, require some sort of forensic or at least minimal sort of police involvement.

I mean it's quite shocking how much higher the Baghdad city morgue's recorded deaths have become over the last year or two.

NORRIS: Hamit Dardagan, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. DARDAGAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Hamit Dardagan is a co-founder of Iraqbodycount.org.

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