Portrait of a Besieged Capital

Times Staff Writer

The frail little girl with the thick shock of black hair and tiny arms lay nearly motionless, shivering slightly and breathing gently behind the curtain in the emergency room. Blood stained her orange pajamas and the blue plastic sheet beneath her; an intravenous drip nourished her wounded body.

No more than 10 years old, she was the victim of a mortar shell that struck the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, a victim of a war in which bullets and bombs and rockets come from nowhere and everywhere, and piecing together who fired at whom is futile.

Visiting the Yarmouk Hospital compound in central Baghdad has long been a routine part of covering the violent events in Iraq. But Sunday, after an outbreak of fighting between rival Sunni and Shiite gangs in the Jihad neighborhood, there were no wounded witnesses to interview, no details to glean about the fighting.

Instead, the hospital was a bleak, bloody and confusing portrait of a besieged city: dead men systematically shot in the head lay in freezers; mute, wounded children from all over the city carried burned metal in their flesh; grieving relatives cried to the heavens for answers.

By midafternoon, all of the dozens of victims in the Jihad violence were already locked up in the refrigerated morgue, or were clinging to life at another hospital with better equipment to treat point-blank gun wounds to the head.

Or they were still lying dead on the streets of the Jihad and nearby Furat neighborhoods of western Baghdad, cordoned off by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

There were no clues here as to who started the shooting, which group of armed men came from which neighborhood, what weapons were used, what number of soldiers and police arrived or how quickly the U.S. helicopters began hovering above the sectarian rampage in Jihad.

There was only a startled, bloodied parade of victims from other bombings, shootings and rockets and their loved ones, many half-awake, terrified, crying in agony or whimpering in silence.

A boy about 12, a huge bandage wrapped around his midsection, hobbled through a corridor with his mother. He had been injured by a bomb in a field, one of the countless pieces of ordnance scattered throughout the country.

Another patient with a bandage around his stomach, Abdul Rahman, 17, had been wounded by gunfire in the Dora section. He had been waiting in a long gas queue, edging the family car up in a line that stretched for miles.

"Since I was young I lived amid war and I expected this for a long time," said Alanali Jenabi, a 25-year-old emergency room doctor answering patients' questions and filling out forms, blood still on her surgical gloves. "But I did not expect the numbers like this, and all of my patients the last two days were children."

Others in the emergency room and wards were bloodied during clashes in Amariya or in Dora, in Adhamiya or in Karkh, and other parts of the city.

Mothers, fathers and aunts, worried and mournful, their hands covering their mouths, their eyes filled with tears, hustled into wards and meandered out.

In one room, Abdul-Hussein Jassem, 49-year-old victim of a suicide car bombing at a Shiite mosque the night before, writhed in pain with wounds to his barrel-like chest, barely conscious as his two brothers angrily paced around the room.

"There's no Iraqi army," said Ahmed Jassem, the oldest brother. "There's no police. There's nothing to stop the terrorists from directly killing the worshipers."

"If you go onto your roof, you get hit with bullets," said Abdul-Wahed Jassem, the other brother, with a full beard and with thick white hair on his head, his eyes burning with rage. "If you go outside the door there are mortars. If you go to the market there are car bombs. If you go on the streets you are assassinated. What have we done to deserve this? Why is this happening to us?"

In a courtyard, relatives pulled the pale, lifeless body of a man in his 30s from a sport utility vehicle, another victim of the shootings in Jihad, hospital officials said. A relative screamed, "God is great, God is great!" as the body was carried into the hospital's forensics lab.

The director of security was about the only voice of certainty in the hospital.

He listed the day's gruesome toll: eight bodies from the Furat neighborhood, seven bodies from Dora, 21 bodies from Jihad, all with bullet wounds and signs of torture.

"They were killed today," said the security director, a compact man in a red shirt and with a sidearm holstered against his ribs. "We know that because the blood is still warm. We know that from the body."

He spoke on condition that his name not be published lest he too be killed.

The phone rang. Fifteen more bodies from the fighting in the Jihad neighborhood were on the way. The director of security summoned the head of the morgue, a tall, frowning man with thick eyebrows and a jutting forehead, who told him that the three large refrigerators were full.

Outside the massive refrigerators the smell of decaying flesh overwhelmed and nauseated visitors.

Inside lay chalk-white bodies, some stacked neatly on racks, others placed haphazardly on gurneys, heads bloodied with bullets wounds, skin peeling with signs of torture, wrists and ankles reddened by bindings since removed.

"It's a sectarian war and it's declared right now," the security director said. "We see five Sunnis killed, five Shiites killed. Two Christians killed, two Sabaeans killed. It's happening. The government isn't doing anything. The security plan is not working."

An agitated soldier approached a group of journalists and demanded to see identification cards. The journalists presented their credentials, assuring him that they would only chat with patients and refrain from taking pictures or causing any trouble.

"There's no trouble you could cause," said the soldier, shaking his head in dismay as he calmed down and identified himself as Akram Karim Hassan. "There is mass killing out on the streets. What more could you do to us?"

A bodyguard told the journalists that it was time to leave the hospital through a back entrance and return to their office. It was getting late, he said, and they had already been at Yarmouk too long.

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