On wide, high-definition screens, images flash up for two seconds at a time: flayed skulls, charred limbs, disemboweled torsos, heads bloated and bulging around taped-up eyes. Men and women sitting in plastic seats flinch as they squint at the real-life horror show, trying to identify husbands, cousins and friends. This is the Baghdad morgue, where the grim body count of the last seven years has been a daily reality, where bodies were piled up and lay unclaimed by terrified families before being driven to vast graveyards with numbered plots.
As American-led troops battled resistance and then civil war, this building and its 50 employees dealt with the consequences. In 2006 and 2007, the morgue received 150 corpses a day. Today, although the stream of dead has slowed to a trickle, the morgue remains a nightmarish reminder of the fighting’s lingering effects as people come to hunt through the photographs of some 20,000 bodies which remain unidentified.
Abu Issam, 47, from the capital’s New Baghdad neighborhood, was looking for his cousin, a 60-year-old man who was kidnapped from his home by men in three cars in January 2006. As corpse followed corpse on the screen, he said, "I look at these pictures and say to myself, ’what is the guilt of these people?’"
Meanwhile, officially, the war is grinding to a halt. On September 1, United States combat operations in Iraq were declared over and, with some fanfare, Operation New Dawn began, a mission of advice and assistance with less than 50,000 American soldiers on the ground.
Media attention has begun to drift from Iraq; the pyrotechnics of Pakistan and Afghanistan are now more interesting than the rumbling violence in Baghdad. But in a country where people are still mourning for disappeared loved ones, divisions and grievances run deep and there is not yet a clear victor in the messy endgame to the war.
Since the end of combat, American soldiers supporting Iraqi colleagues have found themselves in lethal shoot-outs and open fighting in Baghdad, Diyala and Fallujah. Two American soldiers were shot dead on September 8 in Salaheddin by a man in an Iraqi Army uniform who was among the men they had been training.
Other troubles still plague Iraq. Hundreds of people die violently every month and, more than half a year after elections, there is no sign of a government being formed. The divisions between Sunni and Shia, which Iraqis insist were negligible before the 2003 US-led invasion, are still being deepened by violence and politics. There are frequent assassinations among the largely Sunni militias which defected during the American troop surge. The Iraqiya party, which campaigned on a platform of secularism, is likely to be overpowered in government by a coalition of religious Shia parties, alienating the Sunni voters who largely backed Iraqiya.
The infrastructural impact of the invasion lingers. Electricity production has never reached pre-war levels, which were not high, and after a scalding summer marked by riots, the electricity minister was forced to resign. Bureaucracy and bribery dog municipal functions of the state and the police are corrupt and brutal. Minorities are still targets. Christians are associated with the hated occupiers and during the scandal surrounding the planned Koran-burning in Florida, every church in Baghdad was threatened.
The best-case scenario for Iraq going forward is the rather modest one laid out by Barack Obama, in which violence is at a manageable level and there is some semblance of democratic rule. But the ingredients are all there for a deterioration, and if a government doesn’t emerge or there is a serious attack on a religious site, for example, the decline could be swift and have a wide-ranging fallout.
Some American soldiers feel frustrated at the perception in the US that the war is finished. Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Brown commands the infantry division whose two soldiers were shot. After attending the “very emotional” memorial service for the two who were killed, Lt-Col Brown said that his wife and family had felt this kind of danger was unlikely since combat operations ended.
“This sort of event was only in the back of their mind until the events of the last few days clearly codified that this is still a very dangerous place,” he said. A sharp personal reminder that on the ground, the war ain’t over yet.