Targeted Killings Surge in Baghdad

Times Staff Writer

More Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad during the first three months of this year than at any time since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime -- at least 3,800, many of them found hogtied and shot execution-style.

Others were strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, garroted or hanged. Some died in bombings. Many bore signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes, burn marks, gouged eyes or severed limbs.

Every day, about 40 bodies arrive at the central Baghdad morgue, an official said. The numbers demonstrate a shift in the nature of the violence, which increasingly has targeted both sides of the country's SunniShiite sectarian divide.

In the previous three years, the killings were more random, impersonal. Violence came mostly in the form of bombs wielded by the Sunni Arab-led insurgency that primarily targeted the coalition forces and the Shiite majority: balls of fire and shrapnel tearing through the bodies of those riding the wrong bus, shopping at the wrong market or standing in the wrong line.

Now the killings are systematic, personal. Masked gunmen storm into homes, and the victims -- the majority of them Sunnis -- are never again seen alive.

Such killings now claim nine times more lives than car bombings, according to figures provided by a high-ranking U.S. military official, who released them only on the condition of anonymity.

Statistics obtained at the Baghdad morgue showed a steady increase in the number of shooting deaths and other types of targeted killings over the last year, with a stunning surge in March, after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite Muslim shrines in the country.

The morgue logs every autopsied body, cataloging each with a folder and pictures. Two officials at the morgue, the director and the head of statistics, provided the numbers and descriptions for this report.

On a recent day, coffins were stacked against the wall outside the morgue, waiting to be filled. Every half hour or so, police officers arrived, unloading bodies from their pickup trucks. Each time, crowds of people rushed forward to see whether their missing relatives were among them.

But even the grim morgue statistics -- 3,472 violent deaths in Baghdad from January through March -- do not present the full picture of the violence in the capital.

That number does not include those killed in bombings or during gunfights between insurgents and security forces because they are generally are not brought in for autopsy at the central morgue. At least 351 civilians were killed in bombings across the capital during the first three months of the year, according to calculations based on daily reports by hospital and police officials.

Those reports, considered conservative, did not include slain Iraqi security forces, Iraqis killed by U.S. or Iraqi forces, and Iraqis killed outside the capital.

Obtaining accurate numbers from the Health Ministry or the 18 major hospitals serving Baghdad proved difficult, because officials at all tiers of government routinely inflate or deflate numbers to suit political purposes.

The figures obtained from numerous other sources, however, show the sectarian nature of a conflict that is increasingly targeting civilians.

Numbers obtained from officials at the cemetery in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, where the vast majority of Shiites are laid to rest, provided a benchmark to compare the numbers of Shiite and Sunni victims in Baghdad.

In the Najaf cemetery, 1,582 people from throughout the country were buried in the first three months of the year. Included in that figure are also unclaimed bodies -- some of them probably those of Sunnis.

That number, compared with the 3,472 violent deaths in Baghdad, provides additional evidence that the majority of those killed have been Sunnis, because it is still less than half the total of civilian deaths in the capital.

In addition, there are far more Shiites in Iraq than Sunni Arabs -- and so the deaths among Sunnis appear to be disproportionate to the population.

In the Sunni cemeteries serving Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, demand for tombs is so high that people are buried between old graves or at the edges of the burial grounds. Near the gate of one Sunni cemetery tucked inside the Ghazaliya neighborhood, a sign proclaims, "Fee for burial -- only 175,000 dinar," or about $120.

Sunni leaders allege that police officers and special commandos, most of whom are Shiites, operate death squads that target Sunnis in a campaign of sectarian cleansing.

Shiite politicians say criminals steal or buy official uniforms, then terrorize the capital in the guise of security forces. U.S. military officials lay the blame on Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, saying he is trying to provoke a civil war.

After the bombing in Samarra, the U.S. military began an effort to track what it terms ethno-sectarian violence. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said the military logged 152 such killings in the week ended April 22 -- a decline, he said, from previous weeks. How the military arrived at the number is unclear.

Commanders on the ground say it is nearly impossible to determine motives for these killings. A request to interview officers in the unit that tracks ethno-sectarian violence was denied.

Although the number of civilian deaths has increased steadily since 2003 and the incidence of execution-style shootings began to rise last spring, the violence surged by 86% in the nine weeks after the Golden Mosque attack, according to the figures provided by the U.S. military official.

Targeted killings now account for most of the violence.

"That's a major change in paradigm," the official said.

At the central morgue, the freezers are stuffed with bodies, and forensic workers are overwhelmed.

"Our small institute just cannot keep up with the number of corpses we are receiving daily," said Dr. Abed Razzaq, acting morgue director. In March, he said, "I remember we did autopsies on more than 110 cadavers -- all unidentified, all in one day."

On a daily basis, he said, the morgue receives about 40 bodies. "And this number is constant, if not increasing."

Gunmen operate throughout Baghdad -- killing brazenly during daytime and moving with impunity during curfew. Because there is rarely any proper investigation of the deaths by either U.S. or Iraqi authorities, it is all but impossible to determine to what extent the killers are motivated by sectarian feuds or by revenge, money or tribal quarrels.

"I cannot say if the killers are trained professionals or just criminals, but the pattern we see is torture and beatings" before the victim is killed, "mostly by shooting or hanging," Razzaq said. Six of 10 bodies bear signs of torture, he said. Some appear to have been severely beaten; others have had one or more limbs cut off.

"There are no limits to the brutality," he said. He and his colleagues sew limbs and heads back onto corpses before burial.

On the day of the Samarra bombing, the Ubaidis, a Sunni family of teachers and students enjoying the lull of a midterm break, had just finished lunch when someone knocked on the door of their home in Shaab, a mixed Shiite-Sunni middle-class neighborhood in Baghdad. Six men wearing masks and dressed in black, demanded to see Ziad, 21, and his father, Tariq, 52. The men forced the two into the trunks of waiting cars as Ziad's mother, Muazzaz, watched from an upstairs window.

Four days later, their bodies were found in a Baghdad suburb.

At the central morgue, workers duly noted the deaths. Muazzaz's eldest son and her husband of 22 years became two more entries, numbers 30948 and 30952, respectively, in the morgue's byzantine record-keeping system.

"My husband and son were killed for sectarian reasons," said Muazzaz, a teacher who had lived in the neighborhood for 19 years. "In a while, this area will be 100% Shiite.... It's definitely sectarian cleansing."

On the other side of the sectarian divide, large numbers of Shiites fall victim to frequent suicide attacks. On April 7, three suicide bombers walked into the Bratha Mosque -- one of the most important Shiite shrines in the capital -- and detonated vests packed with explosives and ball-bearings, killing at least 78 people and maiming 150 during Friday prayers.

Yarub Sultan, 27, a mechanic from Sadr City, helped evacuate the wounded from the mosque. He then searched for his missing brother, Abdul, scouring hospitals where the dead lay stacked and wrapped in blankets. Sultan's hands were covered with blood by the time his family found Abdul's body.

Despite the attack, Sultan and hundreds of other Shiite worshipers flocked to Friday prayers a few weeks later.

"We were targeted even before 2003," Sultan said, referring to his fellow Shiites, who were brutally repressed under Hussein's regime. Still, he would never take arms against those who had killed his brother, he said.

"If everybody takes the law in his own hands, we will have a civil war."

Evidence of the toll is visible in the black banners draped on walls around the capital.

"We never thought that we would reach a day when we would see Shiites and Sunnis fighting," said Halale Ubaidi, a Shiite who married a Sunni. Her 29-year-old son, Haitham, raised Sunni, was kidnapped along with his younger brother, Othman.

"My two sons were taken in front of my eyes, and one of them is dead," said Ubaidi, who is not related to the other Ubaidi family.

One night, attackers charged into the cramped apartment where the family squatted among Shiite neighbors.

"You, the Sunnis," said the gunmen, taking Haitham and Othman, said their sister, Maryam.

The attackers took the brothers to a house where, during their torture and captivity, they could hear the sounds of children and a woman cooking in the room next door, Othman told her.

Haitham was beaten and tortured to death in that house, said Othman, who managed to escape while he was being taken to a deserted area where, his captors had told him, he, too, would be killed.

Haitham's mutilated body was found five days later in a dump near the vast Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City.

Halale Ubaidi said she had spent her adult life living and praying alongside Sunnis. "I didn't care," she said, still stunned by her son's death.

Haitham's captors had gouged one of his eyes, cut his face with a razor, smashed his skull, broken his jaw, slit his back and cut off his penis, his sister and mother said. A copy of Haitham's death certificate says he was shot 14 times.

"We are living in a state of panic and fear," his sister said. "Maybe they'll come again.... Nobody knows when his turn will come to be captured and killed by these gunmen."

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

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°