A Journey to the Dark Side of Baghdad

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Baghdad nights are full of menace. The smoke of looted, burning buildings turns the sunset blood orange. Once darkness falls, tracer fire arcs across the sky like red fireworks. It's dazzling but dangerous. One recent salvo came down on a gasoline tanker, setting off an explosion that killed a man and injured several others.

When the sun goes down, the streets empty quickly. Curfew unofficially begins at 11 p.m., but few drivers, even those earning dollars from foreigners, stay out that late. One learns to fear the shadows that move. Gunfire punches holes in the city's eerie quiet. Two sharp cracks signal an American checkpoint firing warning shots. Rapid automatic fire sounds the news that electricity has returned to a neighborhood. Most ominous of all is the single shot.

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One evening last week a small crowd gathered around two men lying on the central divider of Saadoun Street an hour after nightfall. We stopped our car for a closer look. Both men had been shot in the head. One was plainly dead, the other bleeding from a bullet hole in his right eye and struggling to breathe. The onlookers merely gawked at the grisly scene, muttering "Ali Baba," Arabic slang for thieves. We didn't know if they meant the victims or the gunmen.

In a city virtually without civil authority since Saddam Hussein's fall, many districts have organized vigilante night patrols to scare off looters and shooters. But these victims received no help: no phones work; no police patrol the beat. None of the gawkers even lent a hand as we tried to lift the wounded man into our Daewoo sedan. It took several universally understood expletives to elicit help.

After a 15-minute dash across a city lighted only by a full moon, we pulled up at al-Yarmouk hospital, an over-burdened 700-bed facility guarded by U.S. troops. Frustrated staff members trying to practice lifesaving without morphine, stretchers or clean linen could do little. "We have no neurologist here," a white-smocked doctor said. "It's hopeless."

Three doctors dragged the unconscious man to a wheelchair and pushed him to an emergency room filled with similar unfortunates. Medics hoisted him onto an unsheeted gurney and hooked up a bag of saline. Doctors said he was the 12th gunshot victim in five hours; before the war, they might have handled one such case a day. On another gurney lay a man doctors described as a would-be carjacker, knifed in the lung. Nearby moaned a man with a bandaged right hand he claimed was hurt when he tried to stop a thief. A third patient, writhing on a bed, had taken a bullet in the kidney after escaping a botched theft, hospital aides said. The doctors in the emergency room face a painful dilemma: many who come to be saved are routinely threatening others' lives. Among them are surely some of the thousands of common criminals set free by Saddam's 11th-hour amnesty. "They've misused their freedom," said Dr. Farkad Joseph, one of the hospital's doctors.

Across the room lay a young boy whose groin was badly scalded in a household accident. Without a catheter to help him urinate, he could die, the doctors said, but no one seemed to have time to scour the town for one small enough. Doctors halfheartedly treated the man we had brought in, snaking a tube down his throat to clear the blood. Before the night was over, he was dead, and doctors held out little hope that the boy would survive. In a city with no law, the innocent and the guilty face the same harsh fate.