Bullets and Bodies in Baghdad
With bodies showing signs of torture turning up every day on the streets of Baghdad, we set out this morning to gain permission to shoot video at the city's morgue.
First, I started my day by going to the media office of the Ministry of Health to get permission for the shoot. All went well; in about 45 minutes I had the permission I needed. This felt especially good since we'd been trying for three days to get into the morgue or be allowed to shoot at one of Baghdad's hospitals where bodies are taken.
From the Ministry of Health building, I drove over to the morgue's parking lot, where I met my camera man, audio technician and our two Iraqi security advisors.
We grabbed all of our gear and walked to the checkpoint at the entrance to the morgue complex.
Here, a Facilities Protection Service officer examined the paperwork granting us permission to film at the complex. The Facilities Protection Service (FPS) is a guard force that works for each ministry; since the Ministry of Health is run by a supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Ministry of Health Facilities Protection Service is known to be thoroughly infiltrated by militiamen from Sadr's Mahdi Army.
The FPS officer glanced at my paperwork, told me to leave my crew at the checkpoint and to follow him inside. There I met with a commander of the morgue's FPS platoon, a short man dressed in civilian clothes. He made a phone call to a higher-ranking official and said it was okay for us to film.
As I was walking back outside, gunfire erupted all around us. It turns out the Ministry of Health FPS had gotten into a firefight with nearby FPS officers from the Ministry of Electricity, which is not run by a al-Sadr supporter. Unfortunately, my crew was caught in the middle.
Firefight at the morgue
With bullets crackling overhead, I yelled at my crew to run towards me and take cover behind a concrete barricade. The Ministry of Health FPS also took cover behind our barricade and continued to fire at the Electricity FPS officers about 100 feet away.
One of the Health FPS officers near us was furiously firing a PKC machinegun and yelling, "I will kill every one of them. I will kill every one of those Sunni bastards."
For two or three minutes, the firing was intense, mainly by the officer with the machinegun. A crowd of 40 or so people, who had come to the morgue to recover the bodies of loved ones, were also caught up in the middle of all of this. Most dove to the ground, while others ran away.
While we were hiding behind the barricade, one of the Ministry of Health FPS officers ran up to my camera man and demanded that he hand over his videotape. It was made clear that we were not to do any further filming of the incident.
After a few minutes, Ministry of Health officials grabbed us and others in the crowd and took us inside. Once we were in the building, a senior Health Ministry official told us to stay inside because he was worried a larger force from the Electricity Ministry might show up and attack our position. We stayed in the building for about 10 minutes before the gunfire began to fade away.
When we went outside the Electricity FPS officers had left and, surprisingly, we saw no evidence that anyone had been shot or killed in the gunfight. Looking back, it seems like the two sides were trying to scare each other more than they were trying to kill each other. One notable exception was the furious officer with the machinegun - he was clearly out for blood.
After all this, we again asked for permission to film in the morgue, and asked for our tape back. By this time a number of people, all dressed in civilian clothes and all clearly members of the al-Sadr's Madhi Army, had arrived on the scene.
We found that each claimed to be the "commander" in charge and wanted to know why we were there with our camera. After talking with a series of "commanders," we finally found one who claimed to be the senior person present.
Once again, we explained why we were there and showed him our paperwork. He looked at it and said, "Oh no, you need permission from the Minister of Interior himself, not an official in the Ministry of Health. You have to leave."
We also asked several officials for our tape back, but were told it was being reviewed and would eventually be returned to us. It was clear from their tone of voice that we would never see the tape again.
The names of local journalists are not being used to protect their identity.
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