A Family, Torn Apart, Pulls Together
Iraqi Clan Rushes to Find the Living and Bury the Dead After Suicide Bombing

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Sept. 14 -- The hunt for one of the missing young men of the Rahim family ended at a refrigerator truck in a hospital back lot.

"He's gone! He's gone!'' an aunt of 19-year-old Saif Kadhum Rahim cried, striking herself in the face with her open palms at the sight of her nephew. His bare, charred legs protruded from under a white shroud in the back of the truck.

"My brother! My brother!" said one of Saif's eight younger siblings, tilting his head back and grasping his hair. With barely a pause, the men of the family moved in around the stunned boy and transferred Saif's body from steel truck to wooden coffin, then loaded the coffin into a van that would take Saif on what would be his next-to-last ride.

Bedlam was bubbling up in Iraq's capital all day Wednesday, bursting through the thin surface of what passes for routine. Families rushed to find loved ones and ambulances sped to aid survivors, even as new bombings sent more waves of frantic searchers into the chaos. Towers of black smoke rose into the sky as police turned away cars from hospitals, fearing secondary attacks that might target medical centers treating the bombing victims.

Members of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia and Iraqi police officers sped back and forth in pickup trucks on the city's highways and through the poor neighborhoods of the Shiite majority. They waved pistols and AK-47 assault rifles at nothing. "Explosions! Explosions!" a Shiite militiaman shouted, pounding the metal roof of a car to get it to turn back from the site of one blast.

In their van, the men of the Rahim family drove across the city, rushing to take the body of Saif home, to search for his 17-year-old cousin Haider, who was lost and presumed dead, and to tend to a 24-year-old cousin who lay wounded in a hospital.

All three were victims of a suicide bombing in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah district, the first of at least 10 bombings and other attacks during the day. They were with several other relatives -- some sitting in Saif's minibus taxi, some stepping away for tea at a sidewalk booth -- when a suicide attacker blew up a four-door Volkswagen packed with explosives.

At least 112 people were killed, most of them the Shiite neighborhood's day laborers, who were gathered at a traffic circle to wait for work. Survivors said the bomber lured the men closer with offers of jobs before detonating his payload. Hussein Ali, another cousin in the extensive Rahim family, said the workers, nearly impoverished, were targeted simply "because they were Shiite."

Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, issued a statement praising the attacks. The group, dominated by foreign Sunni Muslim extremists like Zarqawi, draws much of its support from Iraqi Sunnis resentful of the new political dominance of the country's Shiite majority.

The Sunni insurgents bear "hatred against us," Ali said. "This is a war against the Shiites."

A year ago this month, insurgents shot and killed Saif's 50-year-old father on a street in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, his family said. One of Saif's uncles died the same way four months ago, they said.

From his father, Saif inherited the minibus taxi and responsibility for his mother, six sisters and two younger brothers, the family said. The family on Wednesday passed around a photo of Saif standing by the black minibus, twisting a bare foot out of his sandal, an uncertain breadwinner.

Saif earned about $7 a day driving laborers to and from work sites. On Wednesday, one of his cousins, alerted by a phone call from the family that there had been a bombing at the traffic circle where Saif worked, sped to the scene. He said he found Saif dead, still inside his minibus. He carried the body to the hospital, where it was stored in the refrigerator truck.

After Saif's body had been retrieved and driven home, the men of the family gathered silently, fingering worry beads under framed photos of family members killed in the insurgency. Posters depicting the revered founder of Shiite Islam, cradling children or waving a sword, hung under broken chandeliers on thinly painted concrete walls.

The men waited for others to finish searching the morgues for the body of Haider, the missing cousin, so that the family could drive him and Saif together to the Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial. In accordance with Islamic tradition, Saif would be buried the same day he was killed, his body headed to burial less than six hours after he last walked out his front door.

"In another country, if everything turned upside down, everyone would talk about" Saif's death, Ali, 27, said as he waited. "Here, so many died, and no one cares."

One of Saif's uncles, Falih Kehait, called over an 8-year-old boy and kissed him lightly. The boy had hopped off the minibus just before it exploded.

In another room, away from the men, Saif's six sisters wailed. Kneeling and supported by other women, the sisters tore at their hair, cried with open mouths and pulled down their black clothing to slap their flesh until it burned red. Little girls, one in a Mickey Mouse abaya and others in pajamas, watched wide-eyed against the walls of the back room.

Asked who would take care of Rahim's eight brothers and sisters now, Ali said, "God will keep them."

In a doorway, a neighbor, Fatima Yassim, spoke softly: "What you are seeing now is so little compared to the tragedy that has happened.''

"But what shall we do?" she asked, her hands on the shoulders of a girl with a bow in her brown hair. "Shall we prevent our daughters from going to school? We are afraid even to send our sons to work."

The insurgents "want our people to kill each other," she concluded. "But we are Muslims. We are one religion. We love [the Sunnis] so much."

In the front room, the men wavered between returning Saif's body to the morgue so they could resume the hunt for Haider and taking Saif alone to Najaf for burial. Kehait, the uncle, finally decided he and three others would make the journey to Najaf and trust militiamen and the police to protect the Shiite families who would be streaming toward the holy city.

"Only us four," he ordered. "If we are attacked, only we will be killed."

A girl of 6 or 7 years, a relative of Saif's, watched silently as the men wrapped his coffin in a rose velour blanket and tied it to the roof of a car. Her chin trembled uncontrollably.

No women, a man of the family ordered. Even as he spoke, new wailing signaled Saif's mother emerging from the privacy of mourning in her home. Held up by other women, the twice-bereaved woman collapsed, throwing the dirt of the street in her face.

Men lashing down the coffin stopped, buried their faces in their hands and wept, shoulders shaking.

No women, an uncle insisted again, turning back the sisters as the minibus started up. The women poured from the house. The uncle relented slightly, and Saif's mother pushed herself inside for the ride to Najaf.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company