Baghdad, the city that dreams of death

The suicide bomber came in mid-afternoon. The few survivors who saw the pale-faced man described him as red-haired, with a long beard. “He asked some of the people at the gate if they would be kind enough to move their cars so he could park,” Abu Ali says. “He was very polite. He was driving a Caprice. Then people noticed he was parking in a way that wouldn’t let him drive away.” The one memory all of them had was that the bearded man was playing music and Koranic recitations on his cassette player. “In one sense,” Abu Ali remarks, “he was already dead.”

Baghdad today is a place without names. Abu Ali, the “father of Ali”, really does have a son called Ali but he pleads for me, as he nervously stirs his over-thick cappuccino again and again, to cross his family name from my notebook. Each time I meet Abu Ali, he has survived another catastrophe. Last year it was the Kidnapping – and release – of Ali. Now he has escaped his own death, but it cost five weeks of painful recovery in the Yarmouk Hospital. Even the Arab company for which he works must remain anonymous. It had already received a threat, “a phone call from something called the”20th Battalion” of some organisation with a religious name”, but the company’s officials had not yet found out what they were supposed to have done to upset the caller. The office building stood close to the road. Then the bomber came. Abu Ali talks quickly, anxious to recall every detail so that he can reassess his own miracle of survival.
“I had brought my brand new BMW to work for the first time and I was worried it might get scratched if I parked it in the garage so I parked in the street outside and asked the security guard to keep an eye on it.” His name was also Ali, and Abu Ali noticed he looked miserable. “The poor guy was just sitting there and he told me, ‘I don’t feel all right this morning. I feel upset’. That’s why he was reading the Koran. He read it all day, right up to the last moment.”

There was a meeting of all the senior staff that afternoon – but Abu Ali decided to go home early. “I went out the back way, through the kitchen where I found the cooks, Um Ghassan and Um Bassem. The company had fired them a few weeks earlier and I had interceded to get them their jobs back. They were grateful to me. I offered them a lift home in my new car. Um Ghassan said to me, “We pray all the time that God protects you’. I will always remember this is what she said.”

The women accepted Abu Ali’s invitation and they walked together to his car. “Ali the guard was there and I opened the door and was about to start the engine when I suddenly realised I had left my lap-top in the office. So I left the women there and said I’d be back in a moment.” That was the moment the red-haired man arrived in the Caprice with the Koran on the cassette player.

“I had returned through the back room of the office and that’s when there was the great blast of an explosion. I was hit on the back of my head and side by pieces of concrete, probably from the roof. The building protected me. But I got up and managed to get to the street in two minutes and I saw my car burning. There were 28 cars on fire, all flaming away. Ali the guard, the poor guy, was gone. It isn’t right to say he died; he absolutely ceased to exist. There was nothing of him left. He was atomised.”

Not so Um Ghassen and Um Bassem. “They were killed at once and we found bits of them, but we couldn’t find their heads.” Here, Abu Ali refuses another cappuccino and looks almost desperately around the empty, cold café in which we are sitting. “Two days later, we found their heads on the roof of the building. One of them had got stuck in part of the roofing and it took an hour to get it free. And now here am I, a secular man, thinking of their sacrifice. Did they die for me? Is that how I should see their sacrifice? I am not a religious person, but I will probably reflect more now upon God and what this means.” I comment, not unkindly, that there seems to be a terrible irony in all this; that the suicide bomber who was listening to the words of his God should have indirectly have encouraged Abu Ali by his mass murder – eight innocents were killed in the explosion – to contemplate more seriously the very same God.

“Committing suicide is something forbidden in Islam,” he says. “killing yourself for God or your country, that’s something else. But killing innocent Muslims? You know, I was told by the survivor of another bombing that he saw the suicider with the bomb in his shirt actually dancing in the street and singing a silly song, a verse about beautiful angel women. Think of it, he was dancing. He was in a trance, thinking of the women who would reward him in a few seconds’ time in paradise.” I think of the word “trance” and remember the inspiration of dreams among the Sunni Wahhabis, how Mullah Omar of the Taliban announced he had led his militia into battle after a dream that he must end corruption in Afghanistan, how al-Qa’ida men told me they discussed their dreams. Did not the Prophet Mohamed receive his message from God in dreams? “It is an obsession with the bombers,” is all the secular Abu Ali will say as we leave.

Out in the street, a three-Humvee US patrol creeps past, cars speeding from it lest they be caught in an attack. I look at the American soldier on the front machine gun. His eyes are razor-thin, squinting, watching so hard I wonder if it will not change his face. He, too, has an obsession, of course, for he is looking for men who have dreamed dreams and believe they are already dead.

Dreams may not dominate the lives of every Iraqi, but death does. So I finished my day yesterday by making my now familiar pilgrimage to the place of death, the evil-smelling city morgue. This, of course, is a place of bodies and statistics, if only the Americans and their appointed government cared enough about Iraqis to calculate what these numbers are. Yesterday I came across a distraught family whose son had just been shot dead. “He was the driver of the deputy minister of health,” his uncle said. “He just turned up as usual to drive him to work and there were gunmen waiting and they shot him dead.”

There was no news of this – and again, one must use the phrase “of course” – on Iraqi radio or any television channel. On Tuesday, a husband and wife and their daughter were brought to the morgue, all killed by gunshots. No one amid the morticians knew who killed them. But it was the sheer extent of death by violence which was so shocking.

Yesterday, 23 bodies were brought to the morgue. There were 22 brought in on Tuesday. A week and a half ago, on one day, almost 80 cadavers arrived; on another day 50. Even at the rate of 20 a day, a very conservative figure, this means that in Baghdad alone, 140 civilians are being killed every week, 560 a month. Again, there has been no news of this.

During the three election days, when driving in the city was prohibited, the figures dipped. But now they are back to normal. So what is one to make of the tears and grief and shouting in the funeral yard where the corpses, boxed in cheap wooden coffins from the mosques, are taken away by families on the backs of battered, white pick-up trucks.

In the morgue, you could hear more explosions thundering over Baghdad. Mortars? Bombs? Some families were so angry they could not express their thoughts, let alone the details of the dead, through their anger and weeping. It was enough, you might say, to make a man dream dreams and think he was already dead.

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there