As Violence Ebbs, So Does Iraqi Cemetery's Business

As Violence Ebbs, So Does Iraqi Cemetery's Business
October 17th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: As Violence Ebbs, So Does Iraqi Cemetery's Business

As Violence Ebbs, So Does Iraqi Cemetery's Business
Raleigh News & Observer
October 16, 2007
Pg. 1
By Jay Price and Qasim Zein, McClatchy Newspapers
NAJAF, Iraq -- At what's believed to be the world's largest cemetery, where Shiite Muslims aspire to be buried and millions already have been, business isn't good.
A drop in violence around Iraq has cut burials in the huge Wadi al-Salam cemetery here by at least one-third in the past six months, and that's cut the pay of thousands of workers who make their living digging graves, washing corpses or selling burial shrouds.
Few people have a better sense of the death rate in Iraq.
"I always think of the increasing and decreasing of the dead," said Sameer Shaaban, 23, one of more than 100 workers who specialize in ceremonially washing the corpses. "People want more and more money, and I am one of them, but most of the workers in this field don't talk frankly, because they wish for more coffins, to earn more and more."
Dhurgham Majed al Malik, 48, whose family has arranged burial services for generations, said that in the spring, private cars and taxis with caskets lashed to their roofs arrived at a rate of 6,500 a month. Now it's 4,000 or fewer, he said.
Malik said that the daily tide of cars bearing coffins has been a barometer of Iraq's violence for years. The number of burials rose and fell several times during Saddam Hussein's persecution of Shiites, and it soared again during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Then, in the 1990s, the daily average fell to 150, Malik said. With the current war, the burials again reached 300 daily.
In the early days of the war, some bodies brought for burial had been victims of Saddam, found by their families in unmarked mass graves. Later, there were surges; September 2005 marked a high point after a stampede during a Shiite Muslim festival killed hundreds on a Baghdad bridge. More than 1,300 were buried in a single day, Malik said.
The cemetery workers aren't immune to violence. In 2004, militia fighters loyal to the anti-American militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and coalition forces fought in the cemetery, and burial operations had to stop.
Afterward, many cemetery workers were killed or injured by bombs left behind. Their work remained hazardous until U.S. and Iraqi military teams cleared the explosives, Malik said.
Holy ground
Najaf, a city of about 600,000 people, is built around the gold-covered Imam Ali Mosque, a shrine to one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam who grew up in the home of the Prophet Muhammad and later became his son-in-law.
The city, with the shrine and graveyard, is considered the third-most important holy site for Shiite Muslims, after Mecca and Medina. It attracts millions of pilgrims each year -- and tens of thousands of funeral parties.
The Wadi al-Salam cemetery -- its name translates as "Valley of Peace" -- dates to the 7th century. Its mud-brown jumble of crypts and rectangular and domed brick and marble tombs stretches to the horizon. It's six miles long, two miles wide and grows by acres every day.
Imam Ali himself is said to have pronounced it the entrance to paradise. And so the Shiites come with their dead.
'My job demands death'
Shiites feel so strongly about being buried here that when it's too dangerous to travel, families have buried their loved ones elsewhere temporarily, then disinterred them for reburial here.
Even with less violence, many of those buried here are victims of the war, and the tragedy of each loss offers a counterpoint to workers' worries about money.
On a recent day, after the ritual washing, four male relatives carried a coffin containing the scorched and torn body of Mohammed Hazim, 33. Three women trailed, weeping.
Hazim, a member of the radical Mahdi Army militia, had been killed in a U.S. attack in Diyalah province, his brother, Ali, said.
"Death to infidel America and the agent Iraqi government," the family chanted again and again.
For the laborers in the Valley of Peace, it was just another workday, one they faced with a matter-of-fact attitude unnerving to those who deal with death less frequently.
"Certainly, when the number of dead increases I feel happy, like all workers in the graveyard," said Basim Hameed, 30, a body washer.
"This happiness comes from the increase in the amount of money we have."
Death is something everyone must face, he noted. "My job demands death, and this is our fate, all of us."

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