The air in the Baghdad morgue is thick with the smell of death. There are perhaps two dozen corpses in black plastic bags lying around in the sweltering heat. One of them is burned and has its face exposed, white teeth stark against charred skin.
“The crisis began in June,” says Zaid al Yousif, the director of the Medical Legal Center, which houses the morgue. “The number of victims in June increased, double to triple.” Many of those bodies have marks of trauma, including blunt injuries, he says.
The increase began after Islamic extremists rampaged across northern Iraq, seizing territory. Sunni militants carried out massacres and suicide bombings and beheaded two U.S. journalists. They have their sights on Baghdad, though Iraqi forces with American support are fighting back.
There are fears the turmoil could fuel sectarian killing in the capital.
Yousif worked here during the worst sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad eight years ago, when 100 or more murdered, unidentified people were brought in every day. As Sunni extremists grabbed land this summer and Shiite militias re-activated to fight them, he feared those days might be back.
Fearing A Return Of The Darkest Days
Down a long corridor, past old printers and dusty public health posters, is Mahmoud Saffa. He documents unidentified bodies and shows images of the mutilated corpses to families whose loved ones have disappeared.
“That’s so hard, the job in here, because we see this — you see this?” Saffa points at the screen behind him showing horrific images of bodies from the past few weeks. And the dead are only half the job.
“When you see the family and talk with them, you see the bodies,” he says. “This mom said, ‘I miss my child.’ What you can do?”
Saffa, too, says that when he saw the numbers of dead rise, he feared the return of the darkest days of sectarian killing — though neither he nor Yousif will talk about the sensitive issue of whether more Sunnis come in than Shiites.
Analyst John Drake from the AKE Group, an international security company, monitors the issue.
“Sectarian-based violence — one-off killings, kidnappings — there’s definitely anecdotal evidence to suggest its growth, unfortunately, the sort of abductions that used to happen in the bad days,” Drake says.
That anecdotal evidence suggests there’s been a rise in the abduction of Sunnis, although it can be hard to track because Sunni families sometimes don’t report abductions to mostly Shiite security forces — who are now bolstered by militias.
A drumbeat of bombings and attacks on Shiite areas also continues. Two car bombs in the Shiite areas of Kadhimiya and Karrada killed 17 people on Sept. 4.
For Now, Some Respite
But, crucially, the Islamic State didn’t take Baghdad, and this is not 2006. The morgue director says the number of bodies may even have gone down a bit now, and people are starting to allow themselves to feel just a hint of relief.
In al Zawra park, people go in the evenings to enjoy fountains, lawns and a giant new Ferris wheel covered in a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. Some people here say they’re terribly afraid, but others are more optimistic, like 21-year-old Namir Mahmoud.
“In my opinion, Iraq is going to do good,” he says. “Because maybe we are strong and the city is strong.” He says the security forces are doing a good job and that Baghdadis would fight for their city “to the last bullet.”
One Christian man, Basman Attesha, is out with his wife and baby boy. They’d made a plan to leave the city, but have put it off for now.
“There is danger — but it’s hard,” Attesha says. “When I think about leaving, it makes me cry.” He slips into English as the tears come.
“It’s my home,” he says. “It’s my home.”