MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Some of those killed in today's bombing in Baghdad will likely be buried in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. The cemetery there is one of the largest in the world, a coveted last resting place for Shiite Muslims across the globe. The site is next to the tomb of Imam Ali, the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, and the man Shiites believe to be his true heir. The city of the dead, called the Valley of Peace, holds the remains of millions.
As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, death is a welcome business in Najaf.
ANNE GARRELS: It's stunning by virtue of its size, not its beauty. Simple, unadorned towers of sand-colored bricks mark most of the crowded graves which stretches six miles into the desert. With about 125 new bodies buried here each day, the cemetery is growing fast.
(Soundbite of motorcycle revving up)
GARRELS: It's so big and so chaotic, it takes guides on a motorcycle to help families locate their plot. They're the sole guardians of this information kept on scraps of paper or in their heads.
Mr. MUHAMMAD HUSSEIN(ph) (Undertaker): (Speaking foreign language)
GARRELS: Families come from miles if not continents away to bury their dead. Muhammad Hussein, in a dark suit, is one of the dozens of undertakers vying for their business.
Mr. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) The majority of Shia have a dream. They want to bring their dead here to Najaf in the belief they'll have the blessing of Imam Ali.
GARRELS: But Mohammad Hussein complains the central government makes it too expensive for Shiites outside Iraq wishing to be buried here.
Mr. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Baghdad charges more than $3,000 to bring a body into the country, while a visa for a living person is only $40.
GARRELS: The rituals haven't changed for a thousand years and jobs here are handed down, father to son.
(Soundbite of water flowing)
A body washer who's family has worked here for as long as anyone can remember carefully scrubs the corpse of an old man so he will go to God as clean as a newborn. The body is then wrapped in a white shroud and placed in a rough coffin.
Now 20, gravedigger Kural al-Amari(ph) began working here as a 10-year-old. Stripped down to work pants and bare feet, he chips away at the dessert sand with a primitive trowel. He digs a deep hole and carves out a small cave. The body is removed from the coffin and placed inside.
Despite it's deep religious significance, the Valley of Peace has not been immune from the country's political turmoil. Under Saddam, Shiites hid here from his security forces. During 2004, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi army hid weapons and fighters in the large crypts, drawing U.S. troops into a bloody battle among the gravestones.
Mr. KURAL al-AMARI (Gravedigger): (Speaking in foreign language)
GARRELS: As sectarian violence exploded, Sergeant Abdul Wajad(ph), head of cemetery security, received an additional 250 unidentified victims every week. But he says the last time that happened was six months ago.
Still, security remains a concern with continued tensions between Moqtada al-Sadr's fighters and other Shiite groups. Sadr has created his own cemetery within the cemetery. It's a rare blaze of color with flags and posters, honoring those who were killing fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Sergeant Abdul Wajad says the Sadrists consider these dead martyrs.
Sergeant ABDUL WAJAD (Cemetery Security Chief): (Through translator) We have had problems with the Sadrists, but not right now.
GARRELS: To make it harder for fighters to hide here in the future, the local governor has banned the building of any tombs higher than knee level, what's called the Iranian style. Given it's potential as the source of income, the governor also plans to clean up the cemetery, pave the paths, computerize the grave information and build restaurants. There are rumors an outside company, possibly an Iranian one, may be hired to bring order. For people like gravedigger Kasir(ph), these are unwelcomed changes.
KASIR (Gravedigger): (Through translator) People won't accept the new ways. You can try to force them but they won't accept it. The government won't be able to control this place.
GARRELS: But more than a millennium after Najaf first became a magnet for Shiite pilgrims, leaders here are determined to make the city a new symbol of Shiite political and economic power. And developing the city of the dead, long suppressed by Saddam Hussein, is a key part of the program.
Anne Garrels, NPR News.
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