Coffin bomb ends another macabre day in 'new' Iraq

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

16 July 2004

A few hours before Lord Butler of Brockwell was attesting to the "good faith" of Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq, Sabr Karim paid the price for working for "new Iraq".

The father of seven and a senior auditor in Iraq's new Industry Ministry ­ his job was to scrutinise the lucrative contracts given to businessmen to rebuild the country ­ arrived home in the Saadiyeh suburb of Baghdad with his family's breakfast of milk, cream and bread from a local grocery store. That's when two men in a pick-up coolly fired two bullets into his stomach and two into his head. His children found him lying on the pavement, one leg still in his car.

In Iraq, the funeral tent is traditionally pitched in the street outside the victim's home, but when I went to pay my respects yesterday it was blocked in by cars to prevent suicide bombers driving a vehicle into the tent ­ and not without reason. For when Sabr Karim's brother and son-in-law went to the family's mosque to collect a coffin for the dead man, someone had left a bomb inside. Another day in the life ­ and death ­ of "new Iraq".

Sabr Karim had worked for the Industry Ministry for 30 years. "He was a very honest guy," his brother Yahyia said. "He took care of the government's money and in the past few months, as you know, there were millions of dollars in contracts going through the ministry. His job was to check this.

"Yes, he had received threats. He never talked about them. He was a silent man. He loved his family and he was a fluent English speaker; he read law books and he went to the mosque. He was a very private person."

The details of Sabr Karim's murder were as horrifying as they were routine, and ­ in today's Iraq ­ familiar. He had gone shopping for breakfast on three consecutive days ­ routine is a fatal mistake for anyone in danger here ­ and when he returned before nine he did not see the car parked on the corner in which three men, one talking on a mobile, were watching. Neighbours later recalled that when one of the men closed his phone, another vehicle ­ a Nissan pick-up ­ suddenly appeared.

"They obviously didn't know Sabr or the area, but they were told he had arrived," Yahyia said. "They arrived immediately and were very professional killers. Two bullets in the stomach and two in the head. Then they drove away so fast no one had a chance even to shoot at them. Just think ­ Sabr had seven children."

Sabr Karim's eldest son, 20-year-old Akram,sat beside us. "For 35 years, we have lived in a closed society," he said. "And now we are told we can have democracy ­ but this is freedom and liberty for killers. It cannot be done like this."

But Sabr Karim's murder was only the beginning of the family's torment. His son-in-law, a vet who asked that his name not be published, told me what happened next. "We went to the mosque to get a coffin for Sabr and we brought it home here and put him in it and took it to the mortuary to get autopsy papers. Then we took the coffin back to the mosque and said we would want it next day for the funeral. But when we returned in the morning, we opened the lid and a bomb was connected to a battery inside it." The bomb did not explode.

US troops later investigated the incident ­ apparently concerned someone might have been using coffins to store bombs which might later be used against them ­ and detained two of Sabr Karim's cousins, Fawzi and Hussein Abdal, as witnesses. They have still not been released from al-Biyah police station. "What are we to think?" Yahyia asked me in the funeral tent. "Do you people realise what hell we Iraqis are living through?"

Iyad Allawi, the American-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister for whom, ultimately, Sabr Karim worked, announced yesterday the creation of a new "Directorate for National Security" to enforce law and order. It was a title with which all Iraqis are familiar. Saddam Hussein had a "Directorate for General Security"; when Mr Allawi was asked if ex-Baathists would be employed in his new organisation, he replied that his security men would be "professionals" ­ and all Iraqis knew what that meant.

There was chicken and beef for the funeral lunch outside Sabr Karim's home, and yoghurt and fresh vegetables and strong, hot tea. Some of the visitors suggested there was so much corruption in the Ministry of Interior the police would not try to follow up the murder. And the murderers? There were a few careful allusions to Sabr Karim's work ­ could this have been an inside job, a contractor who did not want his theft of state funds to be discovered ­ or was it just another attack on a civil servant working for the US-backed government? And why should there be a second attack on the family, the macabre bomb in the coffin?

The Karim family are Shias, living in a largely Sunni area of Baghdad, and Sunni-led insurgents have denounced all who work for Mr Allawi's administration as collaborators. This is not something the family chose to mention yesterday. But as I left the tent, a cousin of the dead man came to me. "Mr Robert, thank you for coming but please go quickly now. There are people from outside this area who are here and some of the people who do live here have very strong views. Iraqis know what I mean. People are watching us and we are frightened for you."

So I left ­ quickly ­ with the memory of what Sabr Karim's youngest son, 11-year old Mohamed, with big, framed glasses, said. I had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He paused and then said: "I want to be like my father."