A ruined country

Anthony Shadid reports on Iraq’s dead who still have no names.

In a pastel-colored room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing, where faces of the thousands of unidentified dead of this war are projected onto four screens, Hamid Jassem came on a Sunday searching for answers.

In a blue plastic chair, he sat under harsh fluorescent lights and a clock that read 8:58 and 44 seconds, no longer keeping time. With deference and patience, he stared at the screen, each corpse bearing four digits and the word “majhoul,” or unknown:

No. 5060 passed, with a bullet to the right temple; 5061, with a bruised and bloated face; 5062 bore a tattoo that read, “Mother, where is happiness?” The eyes of 5071 were open, as if remembering what had happened to him.

“Go back,” Hamid asked the projectionist. No. 5061 returned to the screen. “That’s him,” he said, nodding grimly.

His mother followed him into the room, her weathered face framed in a black veil. “Show me my son!” she cried.

Behind her, Hamid pleaded silently. He waved his hands at the projectionist, begging him to spare her. In vain, he shook his head and mouthed the word “no.”

“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” she shouted at the room. “It’s not him! It’s not him!”

No. 5061 returned to the screen.

She lurched forward, shaking her head in denial. Her eyes stared hard. And in seconds, her son’s 33 years of life seemed to pass before her eyes.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she finally sobbed, falling back in her chair.

Reflexively, her hands slapped her face. They clawed, until her nails drew blood. “If I had only known from the first day!” she cried.

The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant’s eyes sealed shut and a woman’s hair combed in blood and ash. “Files tossed on the shelves,” a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war’s name here — al-ahdath, or the events.

On the charts that the American military provides, those numbers are seen as success, from nearly 4,000 dead in one month in 2006 to the few hundred today. The Interior Ministry offers its own toll of war — 72,124 since 2003, a number too precise to be true. At the morgue, more than 20,000 of the dead, which even sober estimates suggest total 100,000 or more, are still unidentified.

The Los Angeles Times says:

U.S. military and civilian officials have hailed Iraq’s step back from the abyss since 2008 and the tentative return of normality, with a capable army and police force and a major drop in violence.

But as the U.S. ends combat operations in the country and politicians seem unable to break a deadlock over forming a new government nearly six months after national elections, every attack rattles the general population and fans the panic that the “bad men,” the “terrorists,” are back.

Dozens of security officers, ministry officials, judges and clerics have been killed or wounded this year. From March through the end of June, at least 354 people across Iraq died from explosives planted on their cars.

“2010 is worse than 2008 and 2009. We hope and pray to God that security will improve,” said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad’s main power plant.

He bristles at the notion that he and others in his ministry aren’t in danger. “Of course there is a threat,” he said, adding he has again taken to switching cars to throw off would-be hit men.

Some Iraqis whisper that anyone can be killed now because no one is in charge, no questions will be asked, the evidence will be long gone by the time a government is finally in place. People can use the cover of political deadlock to make power plays and settle personal scores.

“Of course this situation is because the government has not been formed,” said Kamil Kanjar, head of the local council in Baghdad’s Sadr City district. “Probably the security forces are not obeying instructions and orders in a proper way because they feel there is no government.”

Time magazine reports:

… the rosy “rebranding” of the conflict, as some have called it, is hardly playing well in the bazaars of Baghdad and other embattled cities and towns where Iraqis of all stripes are scratching their heads over how charting their own course can possibly be a good thing. After all, a snapshot of today’s Iraq is grim, and perceptions of an American retreat have the Iraqi streets rippling with anger and incredulity.

“What have the Americans accomplished for this country that they can now decide to just leave?” asks Hasnaa Ali, 42, a Baghdad schoolteacher who is heading home with a bag of groceries to prepare her family’s iftar meal — the daily breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. “We don’t have clean water or electricity. Prices for everything are very high. There is no security, no jobs, no housing.” She adds, “If their goal in coming here was to grant us freedom and democracy, how can they leave us when we are sunk in blood and trash?”

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