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Burials delayed as Najaf cemetery remains littered with weapons

NAJAF, Iraq—While many of the living are flocking back to Najaf, many of the dead will have to wait for burial.

Unexploded ordnance, booby traps and weapons caches left behind from three weeks of intense fighting still litter much of the city's vast Wadi al Salam cemetery. More than 2 million Shiite Muslims are buried tightly together in its roughly five square miles of tombs and mausoleums.

The dense maze, fretted with dirt paths and dead ends, formed a treacherous battleground for U.S. and Iraqi forces fighting the militiamen of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The militia used the sacred Imam Ali shrine, the nearby spiritual magnet that draws the dead, as their fortress and safe retreat.

Clean-up efforts in the streets around the shrine began shortly after fighting ended Thursday in a deal brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's highest Shiite Muslim authority and the shrine's custodian.

That work continues as municipal workers and volunteers armed with shovels and scrub brushes swarm the streets of this until recently prospering city of 600,000. Residents who've lost homes and livelihoods crowd around Red Crescent Society vans where aid workers distribute food rations.

Efforts to retrieve and dispose of bodies also continued Sunday. Fallen Mahdi Army fighters, temporarily buried in shallow graves within the city as battles raged, were disinterred, placed in black body bags and borne on flatbed trucks for burial on the outskirts of the city-dominating cemetery.

So far, however, little, if anything has been done to rid the cemetery of the munitions and improvised explosive devices that prevent families from burying loved ones in the sacred ground nearest the shrine.

"It is full of mortars and improvised explosive devices," complained undertaker Abdel Hussein Makawi, 36, who on Sunday ventured into a now-silent area of the sun-baked cemetery that once thundered with some of the heaviest fighting. "It is still very unsafe."

High-stepping in place, he pantomimed walking through a minefield of unexploded munitions. "Nobody's started to disable these bombs," he said.

So worried was he that he canceled one funeral set for Sunday. On another occasion, he limited the number of mourners that could enter the cemetery to attend the graveside service.

The cemetery, about a quarter-mile from the shrine at its closest, was an ideal position for Mahdi militiamen who launched attacks from the graveyard and tried to lure U.S. and Iraqi forces into it.

"When the battle started, the cemetery was our front," said Hashim Abu Raghaf, an al-Sadr representative in Najaf. "The American troops used whatever they could to defeat us and hit the cemetery."

The unexploded ordnance remaining in the cemetery, he said, came from U.S. attack helicopters and fighter jets. He denied that militia fighters planted booby traps.

Yet a 40-year-old Mahdi Army fighter and Najaf resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a different picture of how 200 to 300 militia fighters in the cemetery took on U.S. forces.

"We were using the cemetery as a trap for the Americans," he said. "We were using improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars."

Najaf police commander Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazarie also said the Mahdi Army hid improvised explosive devices in the cemetery. "The sad thing is they used some of the graves to implant these explosives."

His force lacks the manpower and expertise to clear the cemetery of hazardous munitions, al-Jazarie said. He's seeking help from demolition experts in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

For now, the priority is to remove unexploded ordnance from streets and buildings, he said, so life in Najaf can resume.


(Hannah reports for The Contra Costa Times.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NAJAF


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