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Crime as Lethal as Warfare in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

It’s been more than a month since Hassan Hadi watched as his co-workers were executed one by one at the Happiness Bakery, and he can’t stop replaying the moment when fate spared him.

In a small apartment just a block from the scene of the slaughter, a relative of one of the victims tucks a pistol into his waistband and slides a dull green grenade into his coat pocket as he ponders revenge.

And in the gloomy dissecting hall of Baghdad’s central morgue, a doctor who examined the bakery victims laughs weakly to himself as still more bodies arrive at the crowded facility.

“The cases we are getting are unbelievable,” Dr. Taha Qassim says. “Huge crimes, assassinations, beheadings. Why, only today I dissected three beheaded bodies. We will probably break the record for beheaded cadavers in any forensic department in the world.”

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As Iraq’s newly elected leaders cobble together the foundation of a fledgling democracy, a killing epidemic has taken hold of this troubled nation. Ministry of Health statistics show that record numbers of Iraqi civilians are coming to violent ends, particularly here in the capital.

Assassinations and bombings have garnered worldwide attention. But Iraqi officials say violence unrelated to the insurgency is growing, and Iraqis are more likely to die at the hands -- or in the cross-fire -- of kidnappers, carjackers and angry neighbors than in car bombings.

In some cases, authorities say, the motives are so opaque that they cannot tell whether they are investigating a crime disguised as an act of war or a political assassination masquerading as a violent business dispute.

In Baghdad alone, officials at the central morgue counted 8,035 deaths by unnatural causes in 2004, up from 6,012 the previous year, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. In 2002, the final year of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the morgue examined about 1,800 bodies.

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Of the deaths occurring now, 60% are caused by gunshot wounds, officials say, and most are unrelated to the insurgency. Twenty to 30 bodies arrive at the morgue every day, and the victims are overwhelmingly male.

Much of the violence, officials say, is inspired by the ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries that were held in check by Hussein’s brutal rule, and facilitated by a ready supply of firearms. That deadly combination has let loose a wave of vengeance killings, tribal vendettas, mercenary kidnappings and thievery.

“The only virtue of the old regime is that Iraq enjoyed a state of stability,” said Lt. Faris Jubrail of the Baghdad police. “It was a reaction to the huge size of punishment that the regime would practice. This would never have happened then.”

Police say they are also growing increasingly worried about the recent arrival of organized criminal groups who trade in arms, drugs and stolen cars and blackmail people. In some cases, police say, insurgents have paid gangs of thugs to kidnap doctors and engineers or kill barbers for giving Western-style haircuts.

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Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the police, saying Tuesday in Baghdad that criminals-for-hire were playing a growing role in the insurgency.

Police say the gangs aren’t motivated by a desire to end the occupation; they’re just looking to make a buck.

“There are many different ways people meet martyrdom now,” an Iraqi police spokesman said dryly. “In the old days, these things were contained by the regime, but now they are unleashed.”

One such incident, the officer said, was the brazen killing of 11 workers and customers Feb. 11 at the Happiness Bakery in New Baghdad, a working-class Shiite Muslim suburb on the capital’s east side.

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Investigators first suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents -- the bakeries had images of Shiite clerics and posters urging customers to vote in the Jan. 30 elections, and the attack occurred just before Ashura, a major Shiite holiday.

Police changed their thinking when witnesses recognized several killers as Shiites. Authorities now suspect a tribal vendetta. They speculate that a gang may have been hired to commit the crime and make it appear as though rebels were behind it.

Hadi, 30, said a crowd of hungry customers was clamoring for warm loaves of breakfast samoon that Friday morning at the popular bakery on Martyrs Street. Hadi was busy twisting gobs of dough into loaves, while baker Ali Salim hoisted them into the oven with a broad, wooden paddle.

They joked as they worked. “We were kidding our younger worker, Mustafa,” Hadi recalled. “We were making fun of his big nose.”

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The laughter stopped abruptly when gunfire exploded just outside. Beyond Hadi’s view, three cars loaded with armed men had emptied onto the street and the gunmen were rushing the stores. “God is the greatest!” a gunman screamed. “There is no god but God!”

Alarm turned to terror within the Happiness Bakery as a second burst of gunfire shattered the front window and tore through the cashier, killing him.

Hadi slipped behind an enormous bread mixer and peeked at the front door. He watched a man wearing a T-shirt and a black mask enter the bakery. He was holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

“I was so terrified to know what kind of weapon it was,” Hadi said. “Then the most terrible moment came: The shooting was inside the shop and I was feeling the bullets were killing us one by one.”

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Salim, the baker, died in front of his oven. Employee Abdul Rehman was shot as he leaped over the bread mixer. Hadi felt a bullet tear through his hip.

As he braced himself for the coup de grace, Hadi suddenly heard someone shouting at the gunman: “Come on, finish them up! We are under attack! Let’s go!” Within seconds, the gunmen were gone, and 11 people lay dead or dying.

Hadi’s brother Farooq, 23, also works at the bakery. He and Mustafa, the boy they were teasing, had locked themselves in a toilet during the attack. As bullets smashed into the door and transom, they held their breath and dared not make a noise.

When it was over, Farooq Hadi drove his brother and Rehman, who had been shot several times, to a hospital.

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“Even when we drove to the hospital, [Rehman] was only repeating, ‘Oh, Ali,’ ” Farooq Hadi said, referring to an expression Shiites often use in moments of pain or trouble. Ali was the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.

“Then, as we were getting closer and closer, his voice was getting fainter and fainter, until he was silent by the time we reached the hospital. It seems he had died by then.”

The documentation of such deaths in Iraq is extremely spotty. Neither the United States’ military nor its embassy claims to track or tabulate civilian deaths in Iraq.

In addition to the morgue statistics, which cover only Baghdad, the Ministry of Health reported that 5,158 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of military and insurgent activity across the country during the last six months of 2004.

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That figure, like others released by the ministry, is dismissed as absurdly low by human rights groups and highly unreliable by officials in the U.S.-backed coalition in Iraq.

“We don’t regard their statistics on civilian deaths as being at all reliable, but they are the only ones available,” said a Western official who spoke off the record. “It’s nearly impossible to determine with any accuracy how many Iraqis die, especially through violence. There is war, terrorism, vendettas, common crime, kidnapping.... In other words, it’s simply impossible to know.”

Some groups insist that the Iraqis killed by U.S.-led forces far outnumber the victims of crimes.

The independent organization Iraq Body Count tabulates Iraqi deaths reported in the local media.

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They estimate that as many as 19,432 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the United States invaded two years ago.

A study published in the British medical journal Lancet estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the invasion and attributed most of the deaths to coalition forces, aerial bombings in particular.

The study was unique in that it was an extrapolation from surveys conducted in nearly 1,000 households across Iraq.

Its conclusions proved controversial in the final days before the U.S. presidential election last year, but the report’s lead author, Les Roberts, stands by them.

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On a bullet-pocked wall outside the Happiness Bakery, black mourning banners list the names of the dead and condemn the attackers’ “cowardly and treacherous acts.”

Many such banners hang in the neighborhood; gun battles are not altogether rare here. Weapons are easily obtained, and neighbors say they are more than prepared to respond to attacks with their own arsenals.

One resident, Abu Ali, 37, speaks with pride of his one-man counterattack during the bakery raid. The account provides a vivid example of how violence has permeated Iraqi society.

Ali, a cousin of the bakery’s owner, grew concerned when he heard continuous shooting that day.

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The former soldier grabbed his Kalashnikov and dashed to the scene. He said he saw a masked man with an automatic rifle standing in the street and he assumed he was attacking the bakery.

Ali said he opened fire on the man, dropping him to the ground in three blasts.

When other gunmen began firing at Ali, he said, he ran back to his home, where he had a collection of grenades. He grabbed two of them, climbed onto the roof of his house and tossed one into the street, where it exploded.

Ali said the attackers began firing at him and he lobbed the second grenade, but this one hit a wall and bounced back at him. He said he managed to get back inside the house before it detonated.

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Ali said he was more than pleased to hear that the attackers were seen dragging two of their comrades’ bodies into their cars before driving off.

Ali reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small, light-green grenade.

“After the incident, I never go out without carrying one of these in my pocket,” he said with a grin.

Outside the gates of Baghdad’s central morgue, relatives of the dead wail and weep. A steady procession of flimsy, wooden caskets tied to car hoods or stuffed in trunks makes its way down the morgue driveway to the duty officer, who will sign over the corpse.

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Beset with emotion, the relatives are sometimes overcome with rage when they encounter the medical staff.

“So much has changed. It seems like the crime rates are increasing day to day,” said Dr. Abed Razaq, the morgue’s acting director. “Even the people we deal with are different now. Most people put in a critical situation tend to act abnormally or in a vulgar manner. With circumstances as they are today, with security and laws missing, people in grief will scream at us, intimidate us and even threaten us.”

The doctor said that he and his staff had become very skilled in dealing with their anger and had learned to absorb it “like a sponge sucks in water.”

“We have to do this in order to do our job,” Razaq said. “Everything in Iraq has changed. Only the laws of forensic medicine remain the same.”

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Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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