April 21, 2009

Everybody in Baghdad knows someone who's been killed

BAGHDAD – Amir Jabbar doesn't know how many of his friends have been murdered since the start of the Iraq war six years ago. He stopped counting sometime back in 2007. He says the numbers just got too high.

"Maybe ten. Maybe more," shrugs the 31-year-old parking lot attendant. "It's too many."

Most of them were blown up in bomb attacks, he explains. A few just disappeared. They've been gone so long he figures they're not coming back.

"In my neighborhood, Sadriyah, it was very bad," says Jabbar, who stopped to talk on a busy Baghdad street corner as he ran errands. "Maybe I know more who died than most people. But everybody knows somebody killed by the war, of course."

Six years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, America is preparing to leave Iraq. If all goes as the Obama administration hopes, the democracy the U.S. installed will take root and blossom; violence will continue to fall; and Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and religious factions, still vying for their stake in the country's future, will reconcile.

But those are best-case scenarios, and if they're ever to be achieved, they're far off.

What America will leave behind here, at least in broad terms, is still unknown.

At the same time, Iraqis already are living with what is sure to remain the war's most personal vestige: the absence of the dead. And almost no one has escaped the trauma.

No reliable, comprehensive civilian body count exists, but so many people have been killed here in the past six years that it's nearly impossible to find Iraqis who don't know someone who died violently, either directly because of actions by American troops or, far more commonly, in the widespread bloodletting the U.S.-led invasion set off.

Walk down any street in any Baghdad neighborhood and, chances are, every person who passes by has lost someone. Most can name more than one.

For Saleh Abu Ghaith, a 46-year-old shoe merchant, the one who's gone is his brother-in-law. Ghaith remembers him as a hard worker and a good father. He was driving his daughter to school when a group of men dragged him from his car in Baghdad's Ameriyah neighborhood in 2006.

"He was Shiite, living in a Sunni area," Ghaith says. "We think they wanted to take him for ransom."

But his brother-in-law was not one to go without a fight. "He resisted, so they killed him then and there," Ghaith recalls, sitting behind the counter at his small shop. "No one was ever arrested for this."

Mohanad Latif lives without two relatives, his brother and his grandmother.

His brother died first, about three years ago. He went out for a walk and never came home. Neighbors told Latif's family they saw two men abduct him. They found him the next morning shot in the head and buried under a pile of trash on the side of the road near their house in Iskandariyah, in southern Iraq.

"My father never recovered," says Latif, who is 22 and can't find work. "He died too, but of a broken heart."

Latif's grandmother was murdered in 2007, when Iraq's sectarian violence was at its worst. Someone threw a grenade through her window.

"Yes, it's sad," says Latif, who fled Iskandariyah and now lives in Baghdad. "But this is normal for us. So many people can tell you the same stories."

Those stories, and the consistency with which they can be found, may be the best gauge of the war's civilian toll.

Though several agencies track war-related deaths here, including the Iraqi government and a few private efforts based outside the country, most acknowledge that their figures are not comprehensive. And their body counts vary widely, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

"The reality is that in war, civilian deaths are always the least likely to be properly counted and recognized, no matter how numerous they are," says John Sloboda, co-founder of Iraq Body Count, which has recorded roughly 100,000 war-related civilian deaths in Iraq since 2003. "That's why we decided to do this – because all victims should be recognized."

Sloboda is careful to note that his organization's count, which relies mostly on media reports, isn’t an estimate of the total number of civilians who’ve been killed. "This is the number of deaths that we're certain have taken place," he says. "It's the ones we know about. But there are undoubtedly ones we don't."

Some of the neighbors whom Samia Ahmed lost are among those who probably won’t ever be counted, at least not as long as their bodies remain missing.

"A few on my street disappeared," says the 66-year-old, who sells tea on Abu Nawas Street in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. "Maybe some of them were found, but I don’t think so."

Although he’s only 10, Hussein Karim has his own body count.

“Two of my aunts,” he says, taking a rest from playing with his cousins at a park in Karrada.

One died in 2007 in Sadr City. A mother of five, she was caught in crossfire between American troops and the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, and shot in the street. The other one died last year in a bombing while she was driving.

“The explosion killed her,” Karim says plainly. “She was melted to the seat in her car.”

Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Jenan Hussein contributed to this story.

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