BAGHDAD, Iraq—There'd be no shortage of plot fodder for a "CSI: Baghdad" if there were a war-zone spinoff of the popular television drama.
With several bombings a day and a homicide rate that's leapt from about 10 per month to 3,000, the whole city can seem like a crime scene. Investigators dash out between bombings and firefights to snatch up evidence. They brave gathering hostile crowds to defuse bombs.
Subplots include assassins who target the crime scene investigators, fellow police officers involved in killings that they don't want probed and terrorists who kill with one bomb and leave another behind for the investigators.
With the equivalent of an entire U.S. small town killed in the city each month, the sheer volume of dead has numbed the investigators but they say that some scenes can still cut deep.
"It has become normal for me whether there is one body or many bodies," said Lt. Col. Hammad Menfy, 43. "I only get upset when I see children, women and men—their bodies torn apart or thrown far distances. Then it affects me like any human being, and I get upset."
Often there are as many killings in Baghdad in one week now as New York had in all of 2004, when 570 homicides took place, the last year for which complete statistics are available.
Investigators, though, can go to only 10 to 15 crime scenes a week, said Lt. Col. Amer Abbas, 45, the head of the crime-scene investigation department for the city and the national director of CSI training.
The city has only about 30 investigators. Abbas said he needed 200.
He may get his wish. In two weeks, the first class will enroll in a new CSI academy in Baghdad, built with $3 million in U.S. and British aid.
The new forensics school, next door to the national police academy, will turn out new investigators, help veterans brush up their skills and educate rank-and-file police officers about the value of crime-scene investigation.
Already, the six forensic labs around Iraq have received about $6 million in cutting-edge equipment paid for by the United States with help from Britain and South Korea, much of it the same kind that the FBI uses.
Sometimes, Baghdad crime-scene investigators become victims themselves. About 20 investigators and lab technicians have been killed since the war began, many of them clearly singled out because of their work, said Gen. Munim Said, Abbas' supervisor, who's also over the 240 or so lab workers who back up the investigators.
The investigators' American and British advisers say they admire how the small team of Iraqis faces such a flood of killings and other crime, and all the hurdles of collecting evidence in the midst of Baghdad's complicated mix of sectarian killings, insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and just plain crime.
"At this point, it is just overwhelming, but they do just a terrific job in dealing with what evidence they can," said Michael Hallmark of Florida, who helped get Iraq's forensic-evidence labs up and running after the war.
Hallmark and his British counterpart, Bob Lamburne, have done police work for three decades and have worked in the Balkans, Hallmark setting up forensics labs and Lamburne investigating war crimes.
They trained the instructors for the new academy, where instruction will be entirely by Iraqis.
A big goal will be educating police officers about crime-scene investigation so that they'll be a help rather than a hindrance, Hallmark said.
Police sometimes don't cooperate because they may have been involved in the crime themselves. An entire brigade—several hundred officers—was suspended last week and pulled out of the city for suspected involvement in death squads.
But probably the biggest problem with police officers, Abbas said, is that most don't understand the value of crime-scene investigation.
"The police stations should provide protection for the investigators at the crime scene but they do not," he said. "They do not call us and tell us about the crimes. They mess with the crime scene and lose the evidence that we could have kept if we were there."
When a car bomb goes off, for example, security forces may put out the fire, haul away the dead, hose off the road and let traffic start moving again before investigators are notified that a blast took place, Hallmark said.
If a CSI team does get to the site of an explosion, it may arrive just in time for a second explosion, aimed at them, increasingly common as bomb makers get more sophisticated.
"If they get to a scene and things start getting out of hand, they just leave," Hallmark said. "We can't have them standing in the middle of the street with people shooting at them. They're just technicians."
Conditions in Baghdad are so dangerous that investigators will be on scene only for an hour or so at most, said Lamburne, the British adviser.
In addition to all the other threats, crowd violence can occur almost spontaneously, Lamburne said. The survivors of many victims believe that police were involved.
In Britain, Lamburne said, police would cordon off the site of a terrorist bombing for a week or longer and meticulously search for evidence. In Baghdad, they may have an hour if they're lucky, so they frantically sift through the debris, grabbing anything that seems likely to be a piece of the bomb.
"Here, they have to be very decisive and quick about what they're doing," Lamburne said.
The sheer scale of the violence can make for unusually complicated crime scenes and evidence.
A homicide in the United States may involve only one gun, or, on a really wild case, two or three, often of different types. That makes it easier to match bullets and weapons.
In Baghdad, though, there are often battles with 10 or 20 weapons, all of them AK-47 assault rifles. Making it even harder, the AK-47 is mass-produced and doesn't leave well-defined markings on bullets, Lamburne said.
Eventually, he said, Iraq's CSI experts will have some lessons to teach their counterparts in the West. It's inevitable, he said, since nowhere else are there so many killings and bombings.
The complications of crime-scene work in Baghdad now mean that perhaps only 2 percent of the convictions involve forensic evidence.
But Lamburne predicts that should Baghdad calm down, Iraq will have some of the finest crime investigators in the world, with automated databases of fingerprints and ballistic tests and experienced forensic specialists.
In the meantime, Iraqi investigators will have to deal with the situation they've been handed.
"It's a bit of a tidal wave," Lamburne said. "But what's your option? Not to try to stop it?"
(Ahmed is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.