Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator    

Monday, December 17, 2007

The 'Body Contractors'

Death squads are killing fewer people, but they're also taking more care to hide their grisly handiwork.
Jabber Sowadi's job says something about the depths to which Iraq has sunk. He's a mutahid al juthath—a "body contractor." A 38-year-old Shiite who sports a thin beard and a checkered black-and-white kaffiyeh, Sowadi charges clients $300 to $500 to track down missing relatives, or more often their corpses. For the past two years he's been nurturing contacts in prisons, hospitals, morgues and cemeteries. He doles out bribes for tidbits of information or favors. He even volunteers to bury unidentified bodies at the morgue, carefully noting what they look like and where they were found—details that may help him with cases later. He says business is slower now that security has tentatively begun to return to Baghdad. But the job has also gotten tougher: death squads, he says, have taken to hiding their victims' corpses rather than dumping them openly in the street. "The kidnapping and killing of people … is in a more secret way than before," he says.
There's no question that violence across Iraq has declined: in December 2006, approximately 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed across the country; this November about 600 were. But the problem—and the reason no one from U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus on down is declaring victory yet—is that those statistics do not tell the whole story. Body hunters like Sowadi, Baghdad residents and local gunmen all say that militias are making more of an effort to disguise their grisly handiwork—burying bodies in shallow graves, dumping them in city sewers. Robert Lamburne, director of forensic services at the British Embassy, has spoken to dozens of Iraqi policemen and examined bodies—relatively fresh—from one of several graves uncovered recently. His judgment: "There's less killing, but there's more concealment."
In the past two months, more than half a dozen mass graves have been found in Iraq, at least half of them in Baghdad. At one site discovered in late November, in a yard in Baghdad's Saydiya neighborhood, bodies and their severed heads were buried in two separate holes, according to a source at the Ministry of Interior who isn't authorized to speak on the record. An additional 16 bodies were found buried in a ditch north of Baghdad last Thursday. Dumping bodies is nothing new in Iraq: Saddam Hussein filled mass graves with tens of thousands of Iraqis. But in the heat of the civil war, militias boldly advertised their slaughter. Bodies—headless, burned, slashed open and perforated with drill holes—were left in plain sight as a message to others. Now, with most Baghdad neighborhoods dominated by one sect or the other, the death squads can afford to be more subtle in their killing. "Many militia groups just make people disappear," says Hicham Hassan, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.


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