Horror of war at Iraqi morgue even as attacks fall

By Mohammed Abbas

BAGHDAD, April 16 (Reuters) - Sectarian slayings may have peaked in Iraq three years ago, but at Baghdad's central morgue the horror is still felt as families view seemingly endless pictures of corpses in their search for loved ones.

Relatives of the dead, most of them women and some quietly wiping away tears, sit in a room trying to spot the missing among the photos of men and boys, many mutilated or severely decayed, cycled on a bank of screens.

Some images showed only body parts -- victims of suicide and car bombs -- the camera focusing on the distinctive teeth of a rictus grin, or a fading tattoo on a dismembered arm. Female corpses were shown in another room.

"I'll keep looking till I've found them," said Raja Shihab, who lost a son and brother-in-law in the bloodshed that followed the bombing of a Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Samarra in 2006.

Many of the pictures were of bodies unclaimed for years.

"There isn't a place left where I haven't looked for them ... maybe they're still in this world," she added.

The bombing of the Samarra shrine unleashed a wave of killings by insurgents and death squads as Iraq's minority Sunni and majority Shi'ite Muslims settled scores.

Gunmen broke into homes and riddled families with bullets. People in the street were bundled into cars, their bloated bodies later found in Iraq's rivers. Others were dragged out of cars and shot on the side of the road because of their sect.

Between 50 and 180 bodies were dumped on Baghdad's streets each day at the height of the killing, and many bore signs of torture, such as drill holes or cigarette burns.

"I lost my four uncles on the 23rd of November, 2006. They went out and never came back," said Asaad Raad, 19, who visits the morgue every few weeks hoping to identify their bodies.

Violence has now dropped dramatically, and the Shi'ite-led government is urging reconciliation among Iraqis.

But many like Raad cannot be at peace with the past without laying their loved ones to rest.

"I can't leave the war behind till I've found my uncles. Then I can move forward," he said.


At least 30,000 unidentified bodies were delivered to the morgue since sectarian violence surged in 2006, and about a third have since been identified, the morgue director said.

"In 2006 there was an average of 3,000 bodies a month ... I call this a year of horror," Munjid al-Rezali told Reuters.

The number of victims of violence brought to the morgue has since fallen to an average of five or six a day.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Executions by death squads and insurgents accounted for the greatest number of deaths, a study published this week found.

There are about 350,000 people registered as missing in Iraq, dating back to those who disappeared under Saddam Hussein's brutal rule. Mass graves are frequently discovered.

"We need (more) DNA analysis. It would really help," said an official who declined to be named at the Ministry of Human Rights, where a painting of skulls and bones hangs on a wall.

A morgue official said other difficulties included families refusing to believe a decayed body was their relative. Bodies degrade quickly in Iraq's blistering summer heat.

"The faces of the bodies are different from the photos families have from the studio. They say 'No this is not our son'. We tell people to bring others with them for a more objective eye," the official who declined to be named said.

For Um Zahra, searching for her husband, the horror of the viewing room was too much.

"I can't go in ... My heart can't take it," she said, sat on the floor outside. An hour later, she was still there.

(Additional reporting by Haider Salahuddin, Editing by Michael Christie)


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