Baghdad’s Firefighters Brave the Forces of Anarchy

December 13th, 2006 - by admin

James Palmer / San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service – 2006-12-13 23:32:07

BAGHDAD (December 8, 2006) — Nazar Khani Mousa responded this summer to what has become a routine call for firefighters here — extinguishing flames from a car bombing.
Mousa, 32, was reporting information over his hand-held radio along 52nd Street in the heart of the Iraqi capital when two other improvised explosive devices went off and knocked him unconscious.

His back, right hand and forearm were burned badly. Shrapnel pierced his forehead and left him unable to walk for three months.

Today, Mousa is back at work, risking his life for the equivalent of about $87 per week.

“I don’t know what else I would do to support my family,” he said at the Karrada firehouse in the al-Resafah district of Baghdad earlier this month. “This (violence) is part of our job now. We’re ready for anything.”

The soaring anarchy throughout Baghdad has thrust the city’s 3,500 firefighters onto the front lines of the war, further complicating already hazardous work. This year alone, at least 30 Baghdad firemen have died in the line of duty, and another 55 have been wounded, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s fire departments.

As first responders to car bombs, mortar attacks and roadside explosions, Baghdad’s firefighters are vulnerable to the secondary strikes now popular among insurgents looking to target crowds. And as employees of a government that the insurgents are determined to destroy, the firemen also are seen as valuable kidnapping targets.

And even when they aren’t targeted, they often find themselves in a crossfire between insurgents, U.S. and Iraqi security forces and warring militias.

A glimpse inside the Karrada firehouse along the east side of the Tigris River reflects the tensions in a city that has been transformed into a killing field. Guards stand behind machine guns and peer from sandbagged nests high above a row of red trucks that line the garage below while other security forces patrol the front gate. Inside, most firefighters carry holstered side arms.

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

Al-Sabbah and other firefighters say their biggest problem is trying to figure out who’s who. Many militia members wear uniforms of Iraqi police and Interior Ministry forces — in effect, firefighters often arrive at fires not knowing if ”officials” on the scene are there to help or hurt them.

In August, for example, men in police uniforms kidnapped and killed three firefighters from the al-Shaab station in north Baghdad. On Nov. 6, assailants in police uniforms snatched eight firefighters from the Sheikh Omar station, also in north Baghdad, during a government-imposed daylight curfew. To date, three of the kidnapped men have been found dead; the other five are still missing.

Yet firefighters in the city’s 35 stations press ahead.
“The people still count on us to do our work,” said Mahdi Muhsin, a 31-year-old veteran who began fighting fires as a teenager. “If we don’t put out the fires, who will?”

Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, veterans say they responded to an average of three calls per day, and most blazes were gasoline or propane fires. Today, they average 10 calls a day, most of which are war-related.

The Karrada crews cover 55 square miles, 400,000 people and 2,300 buildings.

The area — a commercial center and home to several high-ranking Iraqi government and military officials — is repeatedly attacked.

But amid the mayhem, conventional fires still exist.
A few weeks ago, Zacharia al-Noor said he noticed smoke rising from the three-story building where he works as a superintendent. With no cell phone or landline available to dial 115 for the al-Resafah district’s fire command center, al-Noor, 44, quickly hailed a taxi and headed to the Karrada firehouse, less than a mile away.

The firefighters arrived within minutes, recognized the source of the combustion — faulty wiring — and doused the flames. Eighteen apartments, two street-level shops and all occupants inside were spared.

”If it wasn’t for them, the building, and possibly the entire block, would have burned down, and many would have died,” al-Noor said.

Not all missions are as successful.

Firefighters complain they lack equipment to search for survivors beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. Muhsin says it normally takes at least 20 minutes to get to fires due to heavy traffic, closed roads and security checkpoints. Average response times among U.S. fire departments nationwide are less than eight minutes, 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 Muhsin, a 15-year veteran.

The 90 firefighters at the Karrada station work eight-hour shifts. The U.S. government has provided financial assistance for their 16 new vehicles, including two ladder trucks. The steady monthly salaries — $350 for rookies and $600 for seasoned officers — keep the department staffed.
At least for now.

Al-Sabbah, who oversees 20 firehouses in Baghdad’s al-Resafah district, sat at his desk on a recent afternoon, explaining why he sent his wife and two sons to live in neighboring Syria. He said he is considering moving there, too.

Then the phone rang. A colleague reported Ali Mustafa, the director of fire training in Baghdad, has been missing for more than 24 hours. Al-Sabbah hung up the phone and looked at his visitors.

The call pushed him one step closer to joining his family.

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