Divers call it “the burial ground,” an impenetrably dark stretch of the Tigris River, about 20 feet deep, passing through the heart of Baghdad.
Cruising the river on a recent day strapped into life jackets that double as body armor, members of Baghdad’s river patrol pointed to bridges near where they swam as children and now recover the city’s dead.
“Violence, terror -- it is part of what is going on here in Iraq,” said a river patrol captain who would not give his name, fearing that insurgents in his neighborhood would discover that he works with the police. He said he gave up swimming in the river years ago and bought a pool.
The patrol’s commander, Lt. Col. Alaa Saleh Ibrahim, has learned this much patrolling the stretch of muddy river the last two years: It takes at least 10 days for bodies to surface in winter. Men float faceup, women facedown.
Fishermen find bodies tangled in the 10-foot-tall green reeds that line the sandy banks.
“This month we are relieved,” Ibrahim said. “We don’t have so many dead bodies.”
Death on the Tigris is almost always violent, the river patrol commander says. Some causes of deaths are unchanging: People jump from bridges, or get tangled in weeds while swimming and drown.
And then there are the dumped bodies, an increasingly frequent sight and a barometer of violence in a city that has become the epicenter of the country’s sectarian strife: stripped of identification, blindfolded, handcuffed, shot and often badly decayed.
Rising body count
The river patrols, created by Saddam Hussein to retrieve casualties of his regime from the Tigris in the 1970s, have returned to body detail because of the city’s civil war.
Ibrahim insists that his patrols find only three or four bodies a month. But he starts describing all of the dumped bodies he has seen recently -- the suicides and swimmers gone awry -- and the number grows to a dozen.
A week ago, fishermen led the patrol to the bodies of two men dumped among the reeds, one blindfolded and handcuffed, the other too decomposed to tell what had happened. They were still unidentified a week later.
But the number of bodies that Ibrahim sees is small compared with that at the major collection point, about 25 miles south of the capital in Suwayrah, where steel nets installed to siphon a river-choking weed called Nile Flower catch the dead -- 366 bodies this year through November, the most recent data from the Health Ministry. The total included five women and two children.
Most of the victims were killed execution-style: handcuffed, blindfolded and shot. The bodies also showed signs of torture. A few were beheaded. Of the 366 found, 50 have been identified, police said, including that of human rights activist Margaret Hassan.
The number of bodies recovered in Suwayrah has decreased recently, health officials said. They think it’s because killers in Baghdad are dumping bodies closer to home.
Baghdad families still search for loved ones at the morgue near Suwayrah. But they also leave photographs of the missing at river patrol headquarters, a whitewashed concrete compound on the east bank of the Tigris.
The new U.S. Embassy is under construction on the opposite bank, within view of the docks where the patrol’s staff of 267, including 16 rescue divers, board their patrol boats.
They don’t investigate deaths -- other members of the Iraqi police handle that. The river patrol is too busy staffing 10 checkpoints to investigate suspicious boats for explosives, weapons and drugs.
In some cases, the dead are easily identified. After a 25-year-old man jumped from the Sinak Bridge in downtown Baghdad this month, the river patrol retrieved his body and identified him by a photograph on file.
The week before, a man came looking for his son, who was last seen swimming in the Tigris (which is against the law and a cause for arrest). The river patrol later found the youth, drowned.
Members of the patrol wear caps that say “police” in Arabic and English. Last spring, 16 of them took an advanced river patrol training course at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, about 50 miles north of New Orleans, the same course that U.S. Coast Guard and Navy sailors attend. Another Iraqi group will arrive in April.
During the last year, U.S. military trainers, mostly retired police officers, have worked with patrols on the Tigris.
“To be out on the river, basically open, it was a kind of a freedom you don’t usually have on the streets, especially with the military set up the way they are now -- you’re kind of locked in your little tuna cans,” said Richard Eaton of Frisco, Colo., who served with the Civilian Police Transition Team and trained members of the river patrol in the spring and summer.
The revived river patrol has trained members of 10 other patrols along other stretches of the Tigris. They are preparing to train units from the northern cities of Mosul and Salahuddin in a few weeks, Ibrahim said.
“As they seal off the road and highways, the rivers are going to be the next focus,” Eaton said. “They need to shut them down, control the flow of people just like they do at checkpoints on the roads.”
Eaton, a retired police detective, trained as a river patrol officer while serving on a destroyer in the Vietnam War. He likened Tigris patrols to those along Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
‘Targeted all the time’
On the water, the river patrol officers look more like soldiers than police officers, with their helmets, body armor and long black rifles. Their old boats were looted or destroyed after Hussein’s fall. They have 16 new ones, including five from the U.S. military that hit the river this month with machine guns at bow and stern.
“Because of the terrorists, we are targeted all the time. People come out from the bushes,” said the captain who didn’t want to be identified.
In the summer, Eaton was out with two boats patrolling a stretch of river in northern Baghdad at the U.S. Army’s request when they came under machine-gun fire from insurgents on the banks. Attackers shot a member of the patrol in the leg and Eaton in the chest.
“Things were flying,” Eaton said.
The bullet didn’t penetrate Eaton’s body armor, but it shattered his utility knife, sending fragments into his hand. He was flown back to the U.S. for treatment. The injured patrol member, Ali Fadhil, was treated at a local hospital and returned to duty.
Ali Abdullah, 22, who trained in Mississippi and followed his older brother into the river patrol, shrugged when asked about the hazards of the job. “Any kind of work is dangerous now,” he said.
On the docks this month, divers shook off their black wetsuits and flippers in the winter sun, trying to warm up after a morning of practice dives.
Asad Saffar Abid, 22, has been diving for the patrol for four years and suspects there are hundreds of bodies at the bottom of the river that may never surface.
Veteran diver Mohammed Khazali knows better. He has been diving “the burial ground” for 24 years. In the 6,000-year-old Tigris, as in Iraq, history always resurfaces.