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Busy Baghdad morgue shows lawlessness plaguing city

BAGHDAD, Iraq—If there's one place that illustrates the street violence and mayhem plaguing Baghdad, it's the city morgue. In a month of operation since the war ended, morgue officials recorded 191 deaths from gunfire, compared with 10 to 15 per month before the war.

Morgue officials said Wednesday that in January they recorded 13 gunshot deaths, then six in February and six from March 1 through March 19, when the war began. The 191 deaths were from April 14, when the morgue resumed operations after the war, through May 15.

In addition, thousands of people have been wounded by street shootings or gun-related accidents, hospital officials say.

These figures are the best records available to show the dramatic increase in gun deaths in the lawless weeks since the war ended. Iraqi police and U.S. military officials have no complete records of gun-related deaths. And there's no other way to count the number of people whose deaths were never officially listed.

"We are very aware of the concerns of the Iraqi people for security. There certainly is a law and order problem, especially at night," L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator leading efforts to rebuild Iraq, said Wednesday.

American officials are expected Friday to announce new measures aimed at getting weapons off the streets. Officials say these might include weapons registration and a prohibition on gun bazaars. U.S. soldiers already seize weapons they find in public.

Across the capital, home to 5 million people, the rampant gunfire has changed how people live. Many parents keep their children out of school, and women who usually drive around the city have stopped venturing out. Stores and restaurants close early. People avoid driving at night, well before the 11 p.m. curfew. Many places have no streetlights because the electricity is out, so bandits can hide on the dark streets.

"I used to stay out to 12 or 1 to have a drink with a friend," said 38-year-old businessman Kais al Kadhy. Now he won't stay out later than 8 p.m. His wife is afraid to leave their home.

At the morgue, precise information about the nature of the deaths is difficult to come by. The Iraqi police department—decimated by looting at police stations, and struggling to mount extensive patrols even with the backing of U.S. military police—has yet to resume thorough homicide investigations. Families who bring their dead to the morgue often aren't forthcoming.

Among the scores of bodies that had arrived in the past six days were two men identified by morgue officials as an Iraqi police major and police brigadier, reportedly killed Tuesday. One had 10 entry wounds, and the other had seven, a morgue official said. Details of their deaths were unavailable, but morgue officials said they heard that the two men had been carjacking victims.

Every day, cars pull up with homemade coffins strapped to the tops. Relatives bring the bodies of loved ones to obtain death certificates and autopsies.

On Wednesday, Taha Kudair, 65, rested outside the morgue. He had helped transport the body of his 62-year-old cousin, who had been shot to death.

Kudair said he didn't know how his cousin was shot, but he blamed the death on the lawlessness.

"We can do nothing," he said. "If you go to the market, you will be killed. If you go in your car, you will be killed. We live without security."

Although the morgue has never been busier, it closes at 2 p.m. so workers can get home before dark, when street violence is worst, said morgue official Abdul Razak al Obaidi. Before the war, it was open 24 hours.

Some deaths appear to have occurred during thefts, and some were revenge killings, Obaidi said. Some of the dead were shot by people recklessly firing AK-47 rifles into the air.

Most of the gunshot victims at the morgue have been men. About 10 percent have been children. Only one or two have been women.

In three of the 191 bodies that came to the morgue, medical examiners found smaller-caliber bullets that appeared to have come from weapons used by U.S. soldiers, Obaidi said. But, by far, most of the bullets found in the dead came from AK-47's, which U.S. troops don't normally use.

Hospitals are seeing scores of wounded each day. At a field hospital that the Saudi Arabian military set up, Saudi doctors have treated hundreds of gunshot victims since the war ended.

One, 11-year-old Walid Abass, was hit by a bullet in his knee when looters descended on his home. Walid was hit by a bullet meant for his father, relatives said. Ahmed Abass, the boy's uncle, said such a crime wouldn't have occurred before the war. On Wednesday, he cradled the crying boy while a doctor cleaned the wound, crisscrossed by stitches.

At al Kargk Hospital, Dr. Mohammad Hamed said the emergency room was receiving at least 10 to 15 gunshot victims on many days. One of the wounded, 23-year-old Ahmed Nasser, said he was walking one recent evening with his children when something—it felt like a stone—hit him in the face.

He awoke in the hospital, soaked in blood. An X-ray found that a bullet had lodged in the roof of his mouth after hitting his cheek. His face remains bruised and swollen. A small red hole marks the bullet's entry. Doctors were waiting for the swelling to subside before they removed the slug. Nasser said he didn't know who fired it.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-VIOLENCE