July 17, 2014

IRAQ: In Iraq, War Strains World's Largest Cemetery. Families Resort to Digging Up Sidewalks At Night, Stealing Plots. :o

The Wall Street Journal
written by Maria Abi-Habib
Tuesday July 8, 2014

NAJAF, Iraq—As Iraq's turmoil enters its second month, the world's largest cemetery is expanding beyond its five million graves and families have resorted to digging up sidewalks at night or stealing lots to bury loved ones.

The numbers of dead buried here has more than doubled, to 200 a day, with the recent surge in sectarian violence.

The 1,500-acre graveyard, home to a revered Shiite shrine, is a mass of brown, with brick headstones jutting out of the earth. Some are decorated with plastic flower garlands, their neon colors faded by the harsh desert sun. Barely more than a foot separates graves. Posters with the faces of the deceased with arrows guide visitors down cemetery roads.

The most desirable plots—those closest to the Imam Ali mosque—are running out, undertakers say.

Najaf's municipal government says there is enough space for thousands more graves. But plots nearest to the shrine, which are the most desirable, are in short supply. Competition for them spikes with each new wave of violence in Iraq.

"It is just like the days when we had regular explosions in Baghdad," said undertaker Najah Abu Sebei as his workers gathered their picks, wiping sweat from their brows in the sweltering summer, when temperatures surpass 115 degrees.

"In the first days of the security crisis, it was slow. But we've seen numbers rise in the clashes," he said.

Since Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, was buried in Najaf 1,300 years ago, Shiites from across the world have coveted a plot in Wadi al-Salam, which means Valley of Peace. Shiites believe that if they are buried there they will be raised from the dead on judgment day with their spiritual leader.

The cemetery is a historical record of Iraq's violent history. An entire section holds those killed in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war while another is devoted to Shiites slain when they rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

The fresher graves, undertakers say, are mostly of soldiers, militants and civilians killed in recent fighting pitting the Iraqi government and the Shiite militias that support them against Sunni insurgents.

The United Nations estimates that the fighting killed 2,417 in June, 1,531 of them civilians. That was a sharp increase from 799 killed in May.

Violence surged last month as insurgents led by the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State went on a lightning offensive, capturing many of western Iraq's strategic towns and cities.

Like most undertakers, Mr. Abu Sebei inherited the right to work in Wadi al-Salam, a 400-year-old family business that relies on long-standing relationships with families spanning generations.

It is a privilege denied to newcomers. But in recent years, unauthorized gravediggers have sprung up. They lurk in the cemetery and try to intercept grieving families before they reach the row of undertakers' offices, promising cheap prices and enviable plots.

Since the late 1950s, the family of Abdul Razak Ali has buried their dead in Wadi al-Salam using undertakers from the Malallah household.

When Iraq's sectarian violence started to peak in 2005, Mr. Ali's family went to visit the Imam Ali shrine to pray for their well-being and passed by Wadi al-Salam. "We found a stranger in our land in the space reserved for my father to rest alongside my mother," he said. "We got really angry. How dare they?"

After a month of searching, they found the family of the deceased stranger. An unauthorized digger had claimed he owned the land and took $400 for the burial, a bargain for the impoverished family.

"It wasn't their fault," Mr. Ali said, recalling his family's debate over whether to remove the body. They decided not to, worried it would be un-Islamic and taint his father's afterlife.

"But now my father cannot be buried next to my mother," Mr. Ali said. And the price of plots in Wadi al-Salam has soared from about $1,500 for about 500 square feet when the family purchased the land in 1991 to more than $10,000 today.

For other families, what was supposed to be a holy privilege, to be buried in Wadi al-Salam, has been perverted.

"It has become a business to make money, like any other," said Salem Kheir Salman, 27, who operates the Rahman Hotel in Najaf.

Mr. Salman said he harbors special disdain for the pallbearers who hawkishly stand outside the Imam Ali mosque and jostle for business as coffins arrive to be blessed in the shrine before burial.

When his father died last year, Mr. Salman transported the corpse from his hometown in Samarra, nearly 200 miles away. The body was washed and shrouded in white cloth, as is Islamic custom, and placed in a coffin. Mr. Salman sat alongside the coffin as they bused it in to the mosque courtyard.

As soon as they approached, pallbearers started pushing each other. Eight strangers lifted the coffin and shoved away Mr. Salman and his brothers, denying them the honor of carrying their father into the mosque.

When Mr. Salman went to tip the men, they spat in rage and demanded more.

"They told me: 'We will curse that dead body because you didn't give us what we're due,'" said Mr. Salman, shaking his head in disgust and recalling how he paid the men about $8 each, too upset to haggle.

"Normally, you are supposed to just tip them from your heart."

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