Let’s Be Perfectly Clear

Iraq’s missing dead

In Baghdad, thousands of bodies have been pulled from the Tigris, but the deaths aren’t reported. How bad is the violence?


Ali is a collector of the dead. That’s his job, or at least one of them. He is also a cook at a kebab house in Baghdad and a member of the Mahdi Army, a Shia militia loyal to the militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. As a collector, his morbid duty is to sweep up the carnage of a sectarian war spiralling out of control — one that Iraqi officials and their American overseers are trying desperately to downplay — and quietly transport it to Iraq’s main morgue, located in the heavily fortified Medical City in Baghdad’s Bab al-Muatham neighbourhood, where all suspicious deaths are taken.

Every three days, Ali says, he and other al-Sadr militiamen go to the Tigris river to pick up bodies. At a spot on the bank just downstream from the Aima bridge in central Baghdad, a series of eddies gently gather in the dead. “More and more are coming there,” Ali says, “from north of Baghdad, from villages like Taji and Balad. Many have their hands tied, most are blindfolded.” The method of execution varies, Ali adds, from the basic bullet to the head to more macabre and viciously novel techniques involving power tools, electric cords and other such domestic instruments. “These are all Shia brothers and sisters murdered by Sunnis,” says Ali, a Shia militant himself who has carried out his own revenge attacks on Sunnis. When pressed, he admits there “may be” some Sunnis floating down the Tigris as well. “But they were killed in defence of our Shia brothers and sisters,” he claims. “They are not innocent victims.”

Sectarian hostility aside, there is another aspect to Ali’s work that is troubling: the deaths of the people whose bodies he pulls out of the river often go unreported, leading to questions about the real scale of the violence in Iraq. Even the wildly fluctuating official death counts are a stark reminder that Iraqi, and by association U.S. officials, are attempting to minimize a problem getting worse by the day. Earlier this year, the figures released by the government following the Feb. 22 bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, a Shia holy site, which has been cited as the spark that started the current round of killings, were suspiciously lower than numbers provided by morgue officials. But as for the overall picture, a September report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq paints a grim picture: civilian deaths reached a record high for July and August with 6,600 civilians killed.

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