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In a Shiite City, Days of the Dead

As mourners descend on a vast cemetery in Najaf, burial workers say it's difficult to cope with the large numbers of victims of insurgent violence.

November 05, 2005|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — Like so many corpses arriving for burial in this Shiite Muslim holy city these days, the body of 15-year-old Wissam Ghannawi Karkhi was barely intact.

Last week, a suicide bombing near the city of Baqubah, north of Baghdad, burned his flesh. Shrapnel tore off his right leg below the knee and severed his left foot. He never regained consciousness.

Following traditions as old as the Shiite faith, Karkhi's family on Friday brought his body to Najaf, site of the world's largest necropolis. The burial coincided with Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan and that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Eid is a time for many Muslims to exchange gifts, do charitable works and visit the graves of their dead. Amid Najaf's forest of stone tombs stretching out to the horizon, the wailing was deafening Friday. Thousands of grieving relatives clutched at the sandy earth, leaned against the graves, and collapsed before pictures and epitaphs in remembrance of their loved ones.

In many ways, this ancient Shiite cemetery is a map of Iraq's recent violence. There is a section for the hundreds who died in August when fears of a bombing sparked a stampede during a religious festival in Baghdad. Another area, festooned with green banners and photos of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, is filled with the bodies of members of his Al Mahdi militia who died fighting U.S. troops last year.

The cemetery also offers a grim vantage point on sectarian violence in Iraq -- one area is filled with unidentified or unclaimed bodies, ripped beyond recognition by explosives in Sunni-led insurgent attacks.

Shiite Muslims are being slain at such a rate that the violence is changing even the shape of the graveyard, pushing out its boundaries by more than 2 square miles since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The bodies flow into Najaf at a rate of 125 a day now -- almost twice the number before the war, funeral workers say. Some gravediggers say that more than half the dead men buried in Najaf this year were victims of sectarian violence.

Even veteran corpse-washers and gravediggers say they are sometimes stunned by the scale of violence now gripping Iraq.

"Eleven bodies came to us yesterday," said Samira Ali Abdul Hussein Tamimiz, owner of a corpse-washing service on the edge of the cemetery. "All of them were killed. There are no people killed by God anymore -- they are all killed by guns."

Many of Najaf's burial workers are practicing trades passed down through their families for centuries. They try to cling to Muslim traditions of praying over the bodies, washing them of blood and treating them with utmost respect. But the conflict, they say, has made their grim jobs that much harder.

"When the body comes in a bag, it makes it much more difficult for us," said Adnan Jaifari, a gravedigger. "In Islam, we must clean the body. When we have pieces, we cannot wash it. We have to clean it with sand."

Karkhi's body was too damaged to be washed, so dust was tossed over the corpse.

Karkhi's uncle, Hani Taleb Obeidi, 47, described his nephew as an athlete who enjoyed video games. The boy was playing an arcade game at a shop when the bomb exploded. At least 29 others died.

As Karkhi's body was lowered into its sandy grave, his mother, Khadija Mohammed, cried out: "You were too young! I worked so hard to raise you! You were too young!"

She tore at the ground and grasped after the body as her male relatives pulled her away. "Now I must leave you!" she wailed. "Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"

There is no comprehensive record of the number of Iraqis slain since the U.S.-led invasion. But several groups have estimated that at least 26,000 civilians have died in Iraq.

On Thursday, corpse-washer Manshad Kadhim Mohammed was cleansing the body of Khalid Harbi, a middle-aged farmer who was shot to death the night before while tending his fields north of Baghdad.

"The terrorists killed him because he's a Shiite," said Haider Hassan, 30, the victim's cousin. "His farm was in a Sunni area, so they entered and killed him."

The body lay on a tiled cement slab in the corpse-cleaning facility on the outskirts of the cemetery. Next to the slab was a large tub of water. Working swiftly, Mohammed scooped water from the tub and splashed it liberally over the body. Then, using a concoction of soap and herbs, he scrubbed the corpse until there was a thick lather. All the while, an elderly man chanted verses from the Koran.

Having washed the front of the body, Mohammed turned it over, exposing several gunshot wounds. Several of Harbi's male relatives -- the only ones allowed to watch -- broke down in tears.

"Oh, Khalid!" shouted one. "Why did this happen to you? Who is so cruel?"

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