Baghdad Morgue Dangerous for Families of the Dead

As sectarian killings surge in Iraq, the Baghdad morgue has also become a deadly place. Sunni families risk being killed when they go to retrieve the bodies of loved ones from the Shiite-run facility. The morgue is now off-limits to journalists.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

For weeks now, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been carrying out more joint patrols across Baghdad. Still, the death toll remains high. The car bombs and roadside bombs continue to go off, and NPR sources report there were 200 victims of sectarian killings in Baghdad in the last four days alone.

But the violence does not end, even with death.

NPR's Anne Garrels reports that trying to retrieve bodies from Baghdad's morgue can also be fatal.

ANNE GARRELS: A couple of weeks ago, two Sunnis, a father and a son, were driving in tandem into Baghdad. The father, Taliq Mahmoud Ali Al Dulami(ph), got through a Shiite police checkpoint only to see that his son following him was stopped. After a check of his ID, clearly identifying him as a Sunni, the police pulled him from the car and began to beat him. Seeing all this in his rearview mirror, Taliq Mahmoud killed five of the Shiite policemen. In the ensuing gun battle, Taliq and his son were also shot dead.

The Sunni family was afraid to go pick up the bodies at the morgue. The morgue, you have to understand, is now controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers. Sunnis are terrified of going there because Sunnis who have picked up bodies there in the past have been shot as they left.

So Sunni women contacted Shiite women in their tribe for help. They delegated two Shiites to pick up the bodies. But it didn't work.

When the two men got there, morgue guards said, What? You're here to pick up the bodies of two Sunnis who killed five Shiites?

A gun fight broke out, Shiites fighting Shiites. This is Baghdad today.

The morgue is a grim place. Not even here, in death, are Iraqis free from politics. The refrigerators which should hold eight bodies are crammed with 30. Often bodies are left to rot outside for lack of space. Two contractors who were commissioned to bring more refrigerators were killed, the assumption being Sunnis killed them in order to make the Shiite-led government look worse than it already does.

The morgue is such a sensitive place now, it's closed to journalists. People working there know the true numbers and condition of the bodies that turn up every day, how many are bound, gagged, and tortured, how many might be Sunni or Shiite.

It would seem the Shiite-led government or the powerful Sadr faction doesn't want these figures known because it shows they either can't control the sectarian violence or don't want to.

Those who do dare enter the morgue are crammed into a small room where they're treated to a slide show of the victims for identification. Most are so disfigured they can't be identified.

Iraq's Shiite prime minister has said one of his top goals is to reform the Shiite-led interior ministry, including the police. In the minds of Sunnis, they are responsible for abductions, torture and killing. U.S. officials concede it has not been easy. They say the new minister of the interior, who they call a good guy, doesn't have the power to clean up the death squads.

U.S. troops engaged in the current security sweeps in Baghdad say the Shiite-led police are often corrupt at best. At worst they're believed to be involved with the death squads.

American forces discovered abuse and torture at yet another interior ministry site at the end of May. After that, the Shiite-led government stopped joint Iraqi-American teams from inspecting any more jails.

Many bodies disappear, never to turn up, even at the morgue. It's impossible to know what the real death toll is.

Anne Garrels, NPR News. Baghdad.

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