- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

BAGHDAD — One of Iraq’s most perilous jobs has become even more dangerous.

The terrorists who daily spread mayhem in the capital increasingly have adopted the tactic of following a suicide bombing with one or two secondary blasts, timed to detonate a few minutes later when a crowd has formed.

And that is bad news for the city’s 3,500 firefighters, whose job demands that they rush to the scene of every explosion to douse the flames and assist the injured.

“This is part of our job now,” said Nazar Khani Mousa, 32, who was working a bomb scene in central Baghdad last summer when two more explosions knocked him unconscious. His back, right hand and forearm were burned badly, while shrapnel pierced his forehead. He was unable to walk for three months.

Today, he’s back at work at the Karrada firehouse in the Al-Resafah district on the east bank of the Tigris River, risking his life for the equivalent of less than $90 a week.

This year alone, at least 30 Baghdad firemen have died in the line of duty and another 55 have been wounded, according to the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq’s fire departments.

Others have been kidnapped by criminal groups or militiamen; still others find themselves in the crossfire of insurgent groups, U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and warring militias.

Most say they are motivated to carry on by a sense of duty and a need to support their families at a time when other jobs are hard to find.

“The people still count on us to do our work. If we don’t put out the fires, who will?” asked Mahdi Muhsin, a 31-year-old veteran firefighter who has been on the job since he was a teenager.

Mr. Mousa, for his part, explained that he is the sole provider for his wife and his three daughters, who range in age from 1 month to 7 years. “This is only job I’ve ever worked,” he said.

If Baghdad’s firefighters are undeterred by the risks they face, that does not mean they are casual about security.

At the Karrada firehouse, guards peer from sandbagged machine-gun nests high above the row of red trucks in the garage below. Others patrol the front gate while, inside, most carry holstered sidearms.

“We’re always prepared for an attack,” said Laith Al-Sabbah, a 45-year-old colonel who has 21 years on the job. “The militias control the streets now.”

Col. Al-Sabbah and the other firefighters say their biggest problem on calls is trying to figure out who is who. Many of the militias have acquired police or Interior Ministry uniforms, so the firefighters seldom know whether uniformed “officials” are there to help them or hurt them.

In August, men in police uniforms kidnapped and killed three firefighters from the Al-Shaab station in north Baghdad. And on Nov. 6, assailants in police uniforms snatched eight firefighters from the Sheik Omar station in north Baghdad during a government-imposed daylight curfew. So far, three men have been found dead; the other five are still missing.

Just getting to the scene of a fire or explosion is also a challenge.

Mahdi Muhsin, 31, a firetruck driver, said it normally takes at least 20 minutes to get to an emergency scene because of traffic congestion, closed roads and security cordons. That compares to an average response time of eight minutes for American fire departments, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

“Sometimes when there is an attack we can’t reach our destination because the military won’t let us pass,” said Mr. Muhsin, a 15-year veteran of the department.

The steady monthly salaries — $350 for rookies and $600 for seasoned officers — are keeping the department staffed, but many long for another way of life.

Col. Al-Sabbah, who oversees all 20 firehouses in the Al-Resafah district, told a reporter he had sent his wife and two sons to Syria and said he was thinking of moving there, too.

Then his phone rang. A colleague reported that Lt. Col. Ali Mustafa Hable, the director of fire training in Baghdad, had been missing for more than 24 hours.

Col. Al-Sabbah hung up the phone and looked at his visitor. He didn’t have to say much. The call had clearly pushed him one step closer to joining his family.

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