- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

BAGHDAD - Criminals in Baghdad are stealing corpses from the scenes of car bombings and killings in order to extract ransoms from grieving relatives.

In a macabre offshoot of the capital’s kidnapping epidemic, the gangs pose as medics collecting bodies to be taken back to the city’s overflowing morgues.

Instead, they take the corpses to secret places and demand payments of up to $5,000 to release each body to relatives for burial. Because Muslim custom dictates that a body must be buried as soon as possible after death, many families simply pay up, rather than involve the police.

“We have seen 40 families to whom this has happened, where people said that they have had to pay money to receive bodies,” said Dr. Mohammed al-Nasrawi, an official at the Baghdad city morgue.

The new racket in “dead hostage taking” is thought to be run by gangs connected to the city’s sectarian militias, many of whom are involved in conventional kidnappings.

Iraqi police said the gangs often respond to car bombings, which can leave more than 100 corpses on the streets. In the chaos, police and army units seldom question the credentials of people posing as ambulance crews.

Capt. Falah Saab al Mamouri of Iraq’s Interior Ministry described how one such gang since apprehended operated: “They would look for bodies that had identity cards on them and then get in touch with the family.

“They would then ring the family of the dead person, tell them that their relative has been killed, and then demand between $3,000 and $5,000 to return the body.

“Once the family had handed the money over to a middle man, they would dump the corpse near the city morgue with the name written on a piece of paper pinned on the chest. Sooner or later someone would hand it over to the morgue, and the family would find it there.”

The process is made simpler for the gangs by the current Iraqi habit of carrying around details of their next of kin in case they are unexpectedly killed. Frequently, such contact details are stored in a mobile phone.

Capt. al Mamouri added: “We noticed two ambulance crews at the scene of a bombing that were only taking away bodies with mobile phones on them. The Iraqi National Guard arrested the crews and they confessed what they had been doing.”

He said that subsequent inquiries revealed that the crews had been employees of the Health Ministry, and they had been stashing the bodies in hospital mortuaries.

The ministry is run by Shi’ite groups loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and often has been accused of being infiltrated by sectarian gangs.

Police think, however, that up to a dozen other gangs are operating the same way.

Some get their pickings from areas known as “dead men’s corners” garbage dumps and other secluded spots, where victims of sectarian gangs are often dumped.

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