- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 15, 2010

NAJAF, Iraq | Pictures of the two brothers stare out, side by side, separated by the gulf of a quarter-century. Rahim Jabr died in 1981, a foot soldier in the bloody eight-year war with Iran, and Naeem was a casualty of the savage sectarian fighting that gripped Baghdad in 2006.

They were reunited in the end, their tombstones placed side by side surrounded by a decorative metal cage in the vast Shiite graveyard of Najaf in southern Iraq.

There is no holier place on earth for Shiites to be buried than this city of the dead, stretching to the horizon from the doorstep of the tomb of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and Shiite Islam’s most sacred martyr. While Sunnis put their dead in local plots, Shiites for 1,000 years have been burying their fallen here and everyone has at least one relative in the graveyard.

That has made it a kind of map to Iraq’s history, at least that of its Shiite majority. Its natural disasters, wars and tragedies are etched across the tombstones densely packed into every square foot of the dusty, sun-blasted expanse.

The violence that has overwhelmed Iraq since 2003, much of it directed against Shiites, fed a massive expansion of the graveyard, swelling it by 40 percent to about 3 square miles — triple the size of Arlington National Cemetery — said Ihsan Hamid Sherif, the official in charge of receiving bodies.

But in a measure of the country’s gradual return to stability, those working at the cemetery say the flood of bodies has slowed in recent years.

“We used to receive 200 to 250 bodies a day; now it’s fewer than 100,” said Najah Abu Seiba, the patriarch of a gravedigging family here for three centuries. “We used to work 24 hours a day.”

On a day in May, the cemetery was peaceful, the wind whipping colorful flags flying over the graves, with only the occasional buzz of three-wheeled transports taking relatives to graves.

“My mother, father and brothers are buried here,” Mouayed Hamed al-Lami said as he brought the wife of his uncle to be buried in the cemetery’s newer section. His relatives clambered out of the minibus hired to carry the body from Baghdad, a three-hour drive away.

“We are burying her here because it is the place of Imam Ali,” he said, gesturing at the distant golden dome of the tomb shrine. “It is the closest place to heaven.”

The violence has not ended completely. That same day, 119 people died across Iraq in bombings that targeted mostly Shiites. So by evening, minibuses stacked with coffins of many of the victims began pouring into Najaf.

But the slowing pace of the dead over the past year has workers hopeful that the era of chaos ushered in by the 2003 U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein may be easing.

Abu Mohammed al-Sudani said he now even has the time to try to organize the section of the cemetery he manages, a corner called the “Garden of Martyrs,” dedicated to the dead of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. They lie in brightly decorated graves adorned with plastic flowers and large portraits of young men dressed in black and often swathed in bandoliers of ammunition.

The section has grown every year since 2004, first with the clashes against American forces, then the 2006-07 sectarian wars when Shiites and Sunnis were killing each other at an astounding rate, and finally in the 2008 battles with the Iraqi army. In recent years, though, its growth has slowed.

“It used to be clashes with the occupier. Now those killed are from assassinations, explosions or they died in detention,” said Mr. al-Sudani. He estimated that more than 4,000 were buried in his section.

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