The Legacy of the Iraq War: Over 100,000 Dead, 20,000 Unidentified


As combat operations officially end in Iraq, nearly seven and a half years after the Bush administration’s illegal invasion, it is difficult to know how to summarize succinctly the tragic cost of the enterprise. I retain nothing but disdain — and a desire for accountability — for those who initiated this criminal, and criminally ill-conceived attempt at nation-building — primarily, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — and would like, one day, to see these men prosecuted for war crimes, and in Cheney’s case, in particular, for introducing a torture program designed to secure confessions from “terrorist suspects” to bolster the case for the invasion, while pretending to the American people that he was seeking information to prevent another terrorist attack akin to 9/11.

There is so much that is appalling about the last seven and a half years — the Abu Ghraib scandal, the murder of Manadel al-Jamadi and other deaths in US custody, horrendous war crimes, the shocking rise in the number of refugees, both within Iraq (1.55 million) and also, primarily, in Syria and Jordan (2 million), the destruction of Fallujah, the plundering of Iraq’s economy, the rise of Blackwater, the profits for the warmongers at Halliburton and elsewhere — but most of all I feel for those who have lost their lives: the US soldiers sacrificed for the greed and folly of a few, and the largely unacknowledged Iraqi civilians, whose deaths were sidelined from the very beginning of the war, when Gen. Tommy Franks declared, callously, “We don’t do body counts.”

Gen. Franks, of course, was only referring to body counts of those supposedly “liberated” by US forces. The exact number of US forces killed — 4,421, to date — has been carefully monitored, while the number of Iraqis killed has only ever been the subject of sporadic speculation in the mainstream media in the West. As the war officially “ends,” Western commentators have finally revealed that they are comfortable with quantifying the Iraqi dead — as at least 100,000. This may be an under-estimate, but even if it is not, it represent 40 Iraqis killed for each day of the war, and I fail to see how anyone in a position of authority can sleep well at night knowing that one or two men, women and children have been killed as a result of their actions every hour for the last seven years and five and half months.

To mark the “end” of the war, I’m cross-posting below an excellent article published in the New York Times on August 30, as the final part of a three-part series of articles, “What Is Left Behind,” which began with “A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” (published on August 1) and also featured “In Iraq War, Soldiers Say They Had a Job to Do” (published on August 20). This final part, “Restoring Names to Iraq War’s Unknown Casualties,” written by Anthony Shadid, followed the attempts by one Iraqi family to discover what happened to Muhammad Jassem Bouhan al-Izzawi — a father, son and brother — who disappeared on July 1, 2005, and is one of at least 20,000 unidentified Iraqis whose families seek to identify them in a “room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing,” where the faces of the 20,000 are repeatedly projected onto four screens, and who, if they are successful, are then able to visit their graves, in a vast cemetery of the unknown Iraqi dead, part of the Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace) cemetery in the city of Najaf.

Restoring Names to Iraq War’s Unknown Casualties
By Anthony Shadid, New York Times, August 30, 2010

BAGHDAD — 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.

This number had a name, though.

No. 5061 was Muhammad Jassem Bouhan al-Izzawi, father, son and brother. At 9 a.m., on that Sunday, Aug. 15, his family left the morgue in a white Nissan and set out to find his body in a city torn between remembering and forgetting, where death haunts a country neither at war nor peace.

There is a notion in Islamic thought called taqiya, in which believers can conceal their faith in the face of persecution. Hamid’s family, Sunnis in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, engaged in their own.

As sectarian killings intensified in 2005 and Shiite militias stepped up attacks, they hung two posters of Shiite saints near the apartment’s windows, shattered in car bombings and patched with cardboard. To strangers, they changed their tribal name from Izzawi to Mujahadi, hoping to blend in. They learned not to say, “Salaam aleikum” — peace be upon you — in farewell, as more devout Sunnis will do.

Burly and bearded, Muhammad was the most devout in the family, and perhaps the least discreet. He allowed himself American action films, “Van Damme and Arnold,” his brother recalled. But his routine was ordered by the call to prayer, bringing him five times a day to the Arafat Mosque.

“We said, ‘Listen to us, just pray at home,’” Hamid recalled begging him.

“It’s in God’s hands if I’m killed,” he said his brother replied.

On July 1, 2005, at 5 a.m., guns clanged on their metal front door like brittle bells. Muhammad’s mother opened it, and men dressed as police officers forced her back. Barely awake, Muhammad clambered down the stairs in a white undershirt and red pajamas. The men bundled him into a police pickup and drove off, leaving his 2-month-old daughter, Aisha, and his wife and mother, who cried for help as the headlights disappeared into the dawn.

In all, 11 men joined the ranks of the missing that morning.

Willing to Help, for $20,000

Shadowed by militias, the family found that going to the morgue was often too dangerous, but as the weeks passed, Muhammad’s brother-in-law went anyway. He found nothing. The family gave nearly $650 to a relative who had a friend who knew a driver for a Shiite militiaman. A month later, he came back with no word, but kept $100 for his time. Another acquaintance offered to help for $20,000.

“Where were we going to get that kind of money?” Hamid asked.

A chance encounter in August brought the family to the morgue. A neighbor had found his father among the pictures in the Missing room. He was one of the 11.

Hamid is a quiet man in a city that does not embrace silence. Modest, even bashful, he is full of abbreviated gestures, questions becoming stutters when faced with authority.

Gingerly, he clutched a note from the morgue. No. 5061, it said, along with the name of the police station, Rafidain, that had recovered his brother’s body. He drove his family to the vast Shiite slum Sadr City, past a gas station named for April 9, the date of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and a bare pedestal where the dictator’s statue once stood.

Police officers in mismatched uniforms sprawled in chairs at the entrance, near a barricade of razor wire laced through tires, a car seat and a fender that suggested the city’s impermanence. “What do you want?” one of them barked at Hamid.

The family needed a letter from the police station, the first step in claiming Muhammad’s death certificate and finding out where he was buried. With Hamid beside her, the mother pleaded to let them inside. For five years they had looked for him, she said.

The policeman glared at her suspiciously. “If you’re lying, I’ll put you all in jail right now,” he shouted.

“My son is dead, and this is what you say to us?” the mother answered.

The policeman turned his head in disgust.

“Dog,” he muttered under his breath.

Slogans litter Baghdad. They are scrawled on the blast walls that partition this city of concrete. They proclaim unity from billboards over traffic snarled at impotent checkpoints. The more they are uttered, it seems, the less resonant they become.

“Respect and be respected,” read the one the family passed, entering the police station.

They followed Kadhem Hassan, the weary 60-year-old police officer in charge of records, whose office was around the corner from toilets piled with excrement.

“They keep throwing rocks at us at night,” he said, kicking shards of bricks away from the entrance to his office, near a slogan that read, “Heroes.”

His office was bare but for a rickety desk and cabinets piled with curled, yellowing files. A fan circulated the heat; Officer Hassan had bought it for $20. Sitting in his chair, he endlessly shuffled files. In words slurred by missing teeth, he told Hamid’s nephew to go buy paper if they wanted a letter.

Eventually, he found the police report of Muhammad’s death.

Dated July 3, 2005, it read: “We discovered 11 unidentified bodies, their hands bound from behind, their eyes blindfolded and their mouths gagged. The bodies bore signs of torture.”

“All of us were victims,” Officer Hassan told Hamid, in an attempt at sympathy. “Who was the exception? No one was. Not the martyrs, not the policemen, no one.”

“If they just shot them, O.K.,” Hamid said. “But they beat them, tortured them and then they burned them. Why? And those guys” — the politicians, he meant — “are just watching.”

“Power and positions, that’s all they’re worried about,” Officer Hassan said.

“Let me be honest,” Hamid said, flashing rare anger at no one in particular. “Just to tell the truth. It would have been better if we had stayed under Saddam Hussein.”

The policeman shrugged and stayed silent.

A Bureaucratic Odyssey

From the Rafidain police station, carrying a letter on paper he had paid for, Hamid went to the morgue. His letter, said a clerk there, Ihab Sami, was incomplete.

“The police don’t understand and neither do you!” Mr. Sami shouted at him.

Quiet, Hamid shook his head and returned to Sadr City.

“Come tomorrow morning,” Officer Hassan told him.

He did. Sometimes with his mother, sometimes his nephew, he went back to the morgue, the police station again, the courthouse in Sadr City and the morgue. Over seven days, he collected papers, each with the number 5061.

“We lost someone,” Hamid said as he drove. “They should take it easy on us.” He grew quiet. “I guess nothing ends easily,” he whispered, “for the living or the dead.”

In a cauterized country caught between its haunted past and uncertain future, death seems to shape life in Baghdad. As Hamid drove patiently through its crumpled landscape, he passed the cemeteries whose tombstones read like an inventory of war, one built on the day after the fall of Saddam Hussein, at a riverside park, near pomegranate trees too desiccated to bear fruit.

“Whoever reads the Koran for me, cry for my youth,” read the marker for Oday Ahmed Khalaf. “Yesterday I was living, and today I’m buried beneath the earth.”

Across the Tigris River was the Jawad Orphanage, where Hussein Rahim, who does not know his age, played with other children whose parents had been killed in the violence. An explosion entombed his family in their home in July 2008. He lived because he was playing soccer. His father’s name, he thinks, was Ali. But he can’t recall the name of his 6-month-old sister, nor his mother. They are the past, he said, and “no one wants to talk about it.”

“I can’t forget,” Hamid said, on the eighth day of his odyssey.

A roadside mine had closed the street, and Hamid parked nearly a mile away. With his nephew, he walked toward the office for unclaimed death certificates and past a billboard that read, “Hand in hand, we’ll build Iraq together.”

Government offices under construction had grown dilapidated even before they were finished. The carcasses of car bombs were piled on the side of the street.

“I don’t consider this my country anymore,” Hamid said. “Really, I feel like a stranger. Not just me. Everyone does.”

The office — a flattering term for a ramshackle tan trailer with brown trim — was down a dirt road, across from a nursery lined with unplanted pots. Here, even the nursery was coiled in barbed wire.

“They don’t even put a sign out front,” Hamid complained.

Perky, with good-natured cheer that seemed at odds with her work, Maysoun Azzawi sat inside with her harried and haggard assistant, Hajji Saleh. She dispatched him to plumb the 100 notebooks — stacked upright and on their side, some with binders missing, all with pages torn — to find the death certificate for 5061.

“Come on, hurry up!” she yelled at him. “Look for the old records! 2005!”

She turned to Hamid. “Are you a Sunni or Shiite?” she asked.

“Mixed,” he answered.

She nodded knowingly, then yelled again. “Hajji, are you going to find it or do I have to come in there?”

He shuffled in, and she pored over the ledger, line after line of unidentified dead, its pages blown by an air-conditioner propped up on two broken cinder blocks.

“Whatever happened to us?” she asked, as she turned the pages, looking for 5061. “There are good people here, brother, but God damn this country.”

“It’s here,” she said finally, and asked for a pen.

She pulled out the death certificate, written in red and numbered 946777. The morgue had sent Muhammad’s body south for burial on July 22, she told Hamid, and the undertaker was Sheik Sadiq al-Sheikh Daham. She handed him the onionskin paper certificate.

“You have everything you need now,” she said. “You can go to Najaf.”

She kept the pen.

In the Valley of Peace

Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, is a city of the dead.

For more than a millennium, the deceased have arrived at its cemetery, the Valley of Peace, seeking blessings in their burial near the golden-domed tomb of Imam Ali, the revered Shiite saint. There are moments of beauty here — finely rendered calligraphy on turquoise tiles, domes of a perfect symmetry that life cannot share. But shades of ocher predominate, the tan brick of headstones stretching to the horizon like supplicants awaiting an audience.

The cemetery receives the unknown, whether Sunni or Shiite.

Before the sun rose, on the ninth day after identifying his brother’s picture, Hamid drove his three sisters, Muhammad’s wife and daughter and his mother past Baghdad’s outskirts. American jets whispered through the sky. As the sun rose gingerly, Hamid’s car passed the tomb of the Prophet Job.

In Hamid’s hand was his brother’s death certificate.

“Corrected,” it read simply.

Only the caretaker knew where Muhammad’s grave was; he had sketched its location on a hand-drawn map in a red leather book bound by yellow tape. Three stacks of bricks covered in hastily poured concrete marked it. “Unknown, 5061, July 2, 2005,” it read. Next to it was 5067, 5060 and so on, hundreds more, stretching row after row, so cluttered that some of the dead shared a grave.

The women stumbled toward it, throwing sand on their heads in grief. Their chorus of cries intersected with the Shiite lamentations of a nearby funeral. Muhammad’s wife grasped the marker, as though it was incarnate. His sister kissed the cement.

“How long have we looked for you, my son?” his mother screamed, tears turning the sand on her face to mud. “All this time, and you’ve been suffering under the sun.”

She shouted at Hamid and the others.

“Please dig him out! Let me see him. It’s been five years. Hamid! We haven’t seen him. Show him to me, just show him to me for a little while.”

She turned to Muhammad’s daughter, Aisha.

“This is your child!” she yelled.

Wearing pink, Aisha paid no attention. Too young to know grief, she played with dusty red plastic carnations, glancing at the rest of the dead, anonymous like her father.

Hamid stayed back, his tears turning to sobs.

“There is nothing left to do,” he said, shaking his head.

An hour later, the family pulled away in Hamid’s car, his mother’s cries still audible. “Let me take your place,” she moaned. It turned onto a ribbon of black asphalt. For a moment, the car caught the glint of the sun, then disappeared behind the countless tombs.

Behind them was 5061. With a brick, they had furrowed a line into the marker. With a bottle of water, they had washed it, revealing a newly white tile in a sea of brown.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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