MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Every day the victims of the violence in Iraq pass through hospital morgues there by the dozens. Many of the dead have been killed in sectarian violence. And while the morgues are busy with family members coming to collect their loved ones for burial, some bodies remain unclaimed, including the remains of suicide bombers. From Baghdad, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this report about a man who collects and buries those left behind.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:
At Baghdad's main morgue, men with faces that are swollen with rage and grief wait for their dead to be brought out.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At least 50 people crowd the courtyard. A group of men chant `There is no God but God' as they carry out a relative in a plain, wooden coffin that is traditionally used to transport corpses to the burial site. As they leave, more people arrive. The lines here never seem to get shorter. Waiting in the queue is Hisham al-Hashimi(ph). He says his brother was shot 30 times while walking to buy candy. He blames Sunnis for the attack.
Mr. HISHAM AL-HASHIMI (Brother Killed): (Through Translator) Why did they kill him? Because he's a Shiite, and they are Sunni. If they want to take power by killing, it cannot happen. The more they kill us, the more we will be stronger, and God shall destroy the unjust.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed Fami al-Samari's(ph) brother Zacharia(ph) was a Sunni policeman. He went missing after leaving work. Samari says he found his brother's body today in the morgue here. He had also been shot, and parts of his body had been skewered with an electric drill. He suspects that Shiite members of the police are to blame, and he says they're acting on the orders of the Shiite-led government.
Mr. MOHAMMED FAMI AL-SAMARI (Brother Killed): That situation--now going to war. If this government continue to lead this country, this country going to war.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When someone is murdered, people are quick to blame the other sect. It's a sign of the suspicious times. But, in fact, often no one really knows who took part in any given attack or why. It is in this atmosphere that Sheik Jamal al-Sudani(ph) works. At every morgue in Baghdad, there are unclaimed bodies. Every week Sudani gathers them up for burial.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At his home in the poor slum of Sadr City, the cleric slowly sips hot sugared tea as he leafs through a book that lists the corpses he's gathered. He wears a white skullcap. A few of the youngest of his six children huddle next to him as he talks.
Sheik JAMAL AL-SUDANI: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sheik Sudani says he's never spoken to the media before about his work. He says he started collecting the unclaimed 15 years ago under the Saddam regime, when it was brought to his attention that the government agency in charge of the morgues was just dumping corpses into holes to be eaten by dogs. With the sponsorship of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, the father of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a small group was established to give people a decent burial. It has 10 members. Sheik Sudani is among the most active.
Sheik AL-SUDANI: (Through Translator) I take pictures of the body. I give it a number. I transport it. I provide the coffin. I perform the prayers on the body. I bury it and build a grave for it. I deal with the dead as if they were one of my relatives, one of my people, as if the dead person is not a stranger, as if he is my brother or my cousin, one from my own skin.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Materials, such as cloth to wrap the bodies in, and coffins are donated. Money is collected from among the members for other costs. Under Saddam, Sudani says he would bury many bodies that had been tortured and mutilated. After the fall of Saddam, he had hoped the killings would stop.
Sheik AL-SUDANI: (Through Translator) After the fall of the regime, I expected that there would be no more unidentified bodies. But now it is the old number multiplied by 10. Now every month we bury about 120 to 150 bodies, unidentified bodies. Some of them are cut into pieces. Others are decapitated.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No matter what their state, he takes them in if they've been left unclaimed for at least six weeks. And, he says, it doesn't matter what religion they may have been.
Sheik AL-SUDANI: (Through Translator) We bury Christians, Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia, and all other religions. We deal with people regardless of their religion.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he openly admits that he buries the remains of suicide bombers, who may have been responsible for the killing of other people he's laid to rest. He says he doesn't search them out, but no one else comes to take them away.
Sheik AL-SUDANI: (Through Translator) He is a human being, above anything. As a human being, where else would we take him? The prophet, peace be upon him, says, `Do not desecrate the dead, even God.'
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the bodies are taken to Najaf, the most sacred burial site for Shia. The bombers are mostly fundamentalist Sunnis, though, who consider Shiite Muslims apostates. The sheik says he sees no irony in burying the bombers there, though.
Sheik AL-SUDANI: (Through Translator) If we put religion aside and deal with each other as human beings, then that is enough.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His is a rare voice of tolerance and simple humanity in an Iraq where both seem in short supply. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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