In Iraq, 'Everybody knows somebody killed by the war'

BAGHDAD — Amir Jabbar doesn't know how many of his friends have been murdered since the Iraq war started six years ago. He stopped counting sometime back in 2007. The numbers just got too high, he said.

"Maybe 10. Maybe more," the 31-year-old parking lot attendant said, shrugging. "It's too many."

Most of them were blown up in bomb attacks, he explained. A few just disappeared. They've been gone so long that he figures they aren't coming back.

"In my neighborhood, Sadriyah, it was very bad," said 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 start leaving Iraq. If all goes as the Obama administration hopes it will, the democracy that America installed will take root and blossom, violence will continue to decline and Iraq's ethnic, sectarian and religious factions — still vying for their say in the country's future — will reconcile with one another.

That's the best-case scenario, however, and if it ever comes true, it won't be for some time.

What America will leave behind in Iraq, at least in broad terms, is still unknown, but Iraqis already are living with what's sure to remain the war's most personal vestige: the absence of the dead. Almost no Iraqi has escaped that trauma.

No comprehensive, reliable civilian body count exists, but so many people have been killed in the past six years that it's nearly impossible to find an Iraqi who doesn't know someone who died violently, either because of actions by American troops or, far more commonly, in the widespread bloodletting that the invasion triggered.

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

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

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

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

Mohamed Latif lost 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 that they saw two men abduct him. They found his body the next morning, shot in the head and buried under a pile of trash on the side of the road near the family's house in Iskandariyah, in southern Iraq.

"My father never recovered," said Latif, who's 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," said 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, if unscientific, gauge of the war's civilian toll.

Several agencies, including the Iraqi government and a few private groups based outside the country, track war-related deaths, but most acknowledge that their figures aren't comprehensive. 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," said John Sloboda, a 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 news reports, isn't an estimate of the number of civilians who've been killed.

"This is the number of deaths that we're certain have taken place," he said. "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 are still missing.

"A few on my street disappeared," said 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 said, taking a rest from playing with his cousins at a park in Karrada.

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

"The explosion killed her," Hussein said. "She was melted to the seat in her car."

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


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