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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: A VOLUNTEER GROUP AND U.S. CASUALTIES

The selfless and the dead

An Iraqi burial society pays its respects to unclaimed war victims.

October 22, 2006|Raheem Salman and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, IRAQ — Twice a week, the large delivery truck from Baghdad rolls into the vast cemetery in this holy Shiite Muslim city. A bus follows, bearing wooden caskets on its roof.

Half a mile beyond the cemetery gates, at the edge of the desert, the passengers get out of the bus and set to work unloading the truck's grim cargo. On an average trip, there will be 70 to 100 bodies, victims of the sectarian bloodletting that has gripped Iraq.

The men belong to a word-of-mouth burial society for the unclaimed dead, formed during the 1980s war with Iran, starting small and growing with the need. Today, about 500 men -- laborers, professionals, clerics and tribal leaders -- are members of the legation of the dead in this country where deep piety and terrible brutality have repeatedly intertwined.

The society has no name and no officers. It adheres to no religious sect or political agenda. Thirty to 60 men make each trip. Some go every time; those who have to take time off from work may go only once every few weeks. They pay their own expenses and have rejected government compensation.

"We told them that if there will be money for this work we withdraw, as an act cannot be evaluated with money," said taxi driver Hashim Saadi, 53. "We want the blessing of God only."

Many who belong were drawn to it by their own experiences.

"When I look at them, I feel deeply sad," Saadi said. "Each one of them I see as my son, who was kidnapped five months ago. He was in his last year in the college of economy and administration at Baghdad University. I expect to see his body any time with any group we are bringing."

Mohammed Sabbar, an official with the Iraq Board of Tourism, said he joined the society after his brother disappeared about a year ago and later turned up in the morgue. The family suffered for weeks not knowing his fate.

"I did not go to my work today, preferring to join this act, which is filled with human feelings," Sabbar said. "We feel sad for them. Sometimes I weep. Repeatedly doing this has elicited a sort of acceptance of the sight, but feelings of sadness are still there."

The depth of his commitment is astonishing.

Each two-day trip begins at 4 a.m. after morning prayers. Sabbar walks three-quarters of a mile from the Ur neighborhood of Baghdad to a mosque in Sadr City, where several of the men converge. At the mosque, they pick up two or three caskets, which they tie to the roof of the bus.

The bus drives to the Baghdad morgue, an impersonal building of yellow brick, where other men arrive in their cars.

They load the truck with bodies that have been unclaimed for two weeks -- at that point, the morgue has to clear them out to make room new ones.

Leaving Baghdad at 7 a.m., they must traverse Latifiya, an insurgent stronghold and one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. Kidnappings, shootings and roadside bomb attacks occur there almost daily.

The caskets on the bus could be a liability in the Sunni Arab city, giving the impression that the men are Shiites on the road to Najaf. But they also ensure speedier passage through the many checkpoints on the 110-mile highway. Mourning parties are less likely to be stopped for identity checks.

About noon, the bus arrives at the cemetery. The men say their midday prayers before they unload the bodies on stretchers into the desert heat, loudly chanting, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God." They remove the bodies from black nylon sacks. To each they attach a tag bearing all that is known about the deceased.

Some are headless, some bloated and purple. If the body is too decomposed to wash, the men perform what is called the tayamum, rubbing the face and hands with clean sand, in accordance with Islamic tradition.

They return the body to a sack sprinkled with camphor and pungent leaves. Then they wrap the body with a white cloth. They lower bodies into double graves according to their morgue numbers, odd on one side, even on the other. The graves are marked with flat stones that say "Unclaimed."

"When I look at any one of these victims, we feel that he is my brother or father," said Abu Muntadhar, 44, who receives a government salary to drive one of the delivery trucks but has volunteered for this job. "We cry as if they are our relatives. I imagine how their wives will behave if they see them, or their children."

Caring for the unclaimed began as a charity supported by wealthy residents of Baghdad to provide proper burials for the indigent, said Sheik Mehdi Abdul Zahara, one of about 100 burial brokers who work out of tiny offices at the cemetery. Paid by families of the dead, they acquire plots, hire gravediggers and maintain monuments.

The numbers of dead have grown with each traumatic turn in Iraq's course.

During Saddam Hussein's brutal repression after the failed 1991 Shiite uprising, 30 to 40 bodies arrived each month. After the overthrow of Hussein, the number jumped to 30 a week and kept climbing.

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