Evidence on Ice: Baghdad's Morgue

The morgue is several blocks away, but the stench of rotting flesh wafts through the streets of the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Bab Al-Muadham. The odor is so powerful that doctors, police and cleaning workers cover their mouths and noses as they walk through the halls of the one-story building, struggling to avoid slipping on the black, oily film that covers the floors. Visitors who come in search of missing family members carry burning paper in hopes of masking the smell. Employees dump fresh cadavers—some of them headless—into the refrigeration units just off the main hallway.

Each refrigerator holds about 25 bodies, and they're fully stocked; leftover corpses, and even some solitary limbs, pile up nearby. Morgue staff go about their business among swarms of black flies. It's just another day in Baghdad, and their unpleasant work pays the bills. Privately, they admit that working in the morgue takes its toll. "It's a really bad job," says 46-year-old Fadhil, who has been employed as a cleaner at the morgue for a decade. "It's turned us into other creatures."

With sectarian violence showing no signs of abating, Baghdad's main morgue has become a busy place. While Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki is in Washington discussing security options with President George W. Bush, armed Shiite and Sunni groups continue to wage war in the heart of Iraq—often killing members of the opposite sect just for showing the "wrong" identity card at a checkpoint. Many of them end up at the morgue in Bab Al-Muadham. Back before the U.S.-led Coalition invaded, the morgue typically received 10 bodies a day; now, on some days the staff see 150 new arrivals. More than 1,000 bodies have arrived each month of this year; June's tally was 1,595.

Civilian deaths in Iraq have been a contentious point since Day One of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Anti-war activists and opposition politicians often cite estimates of 100,000 civilian deaths said to have resulted from the invasion and the subsequent violence. A recent United Nations report calculated that 6,000 civilians died in the violence in May and June alone. The morgue is at the heart of that debate, because whoever controls the morgue controls the numbers. That person is radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. One day last week, a NEWSWEEK reporter saw more than a dozen militiamen, dressed in the traditional black of Sadr's army, patrolling the facilities, keeping an eye on the staff. According to morgue employees, Sadr's Mahdi militiamen aim to control the flow of information to give Sadr a leg up in the propaganda war. Ministry of Health officials release statistics from time to time. Last week, a ministry official told NEWSWEEK that the last few weeks have seen a 30 percent rise in victims, many of them found in the garbage or floating down the Tigris—but they rarely reveal details about the nature of the deaths, or the identities of the corpses. Sadr's political wing also controls the Health Ministry, and he has good reason to keep such details hidden: they could incriminate Shiite militias.

An overwhelming majority of the delivered dead are young Sunni men, according to morgue employees. They appear to be the victims of Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army. In recent weeks, a large number of victims have arrived at the morgue with their hands and feet bound together and their eyes and mouths sealed shut with tape, according to several doctors at the morgue interviewed by NEWSWEEK. Their jugular veins or wrists had been slit, leaving the victims to die slowly. This technique, known as "the Khomeini guards method," was used on Iraqi soldiers during the war with Iran, according to a Sunni doctor who works with the morgue. (He and other sources in this report could not be identified for safety reasons.) Given the Mahdi Army's close links with Tehran, morgue employees have little doubt about why Sadrist politicians and officials would want to bury such details. "The Iraqi Shiite government accuses the [Sunni] resistance groups of committing of such acts," says the Sunni doctor. "But all Iraqis know that [it's] the Mahdi Army."

Although the Ministry of Health officially denies any Mahdi Army involvement in the running of the morgue, employees cite occasions when the militia members on the premises have ordered them not to refrigerate certain unidentified bodies—those with beards, for instance, because they might be despised Sunni imams. Worse still, they also say that militia members have on occasion taken mobile phones from the clothes of the dead, and called their relatives to inform them of the victim's status. When the relatives came to identify the body, the employees say, the militia followed them offsite and killed them too.

With the bodies in Bab Al-Muadham steadily mounting, Maliki and Bush will have to come up with practical solutions to quell the violence, lest they appear out of touch with the daily reality of Iraq. At the morgue, a radio blares an upbeat pop tune by Lebanese star Nanci Ajram.

The morgue's receptionist sits with a few other workers eating sandwiches, flies buzzing between them and the nearby cadavers. "We have to be patient," says the receptionist. If the morgue's intake continues at the current rate, Iraqis may find that increasingly difficult.