On the sun-baked sand of one of the world's largest cemeteries, Ali Kadhim Subhi walked Friday along a row of 10 coffins allocated to the corpses who were once his family.
"There's my father," he said, pointing to a body wrapped in a soiled red blanket. He walked a few steps, grief tearing at the dignity of his weathered face. "That's my mother." Breathing deeply, he stopped. "That's my wife," he said, with a simple nod of his head.
In a U.S. bombing March 23 that left the wreckage of his home smoldering for six days, Subhi was the only one of 26 in his family in the southern city of Nasiriyah to escape death or injury. God, he explained. For more than three weeks, his loved ones were buried in a makeshift grave near their home. On Friday, like hundreds of other devout Iraqi Shiites, he brought them in a blue flatbed truck for a proper burial in the sacred city of Najaf.
"More and more and more," said Hassan Falayeh, as he dug the graves for Subhi's family, wrapping a black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh around his mouth to block the stench of death. "It's disaster after disaster. Not one, but many."
The U.S. military has said it has no plans to count the number of Iraqi civilians killed in the three-week war, and the final toll may never be determined. But the cemetery at this holy site 100 miles south of Baghdad provided an insight, however limited, into at least a portion of those casualties. Many cemetery workers said they had no idea how many bodies have arrived. One said that over the past week, each of the six workers was washing 45 bodies a day. Others spoke of hundreds, even thousands being buried from dawn to dusk.
"Nobody can say how many are coming," said Riyadh Abboud, another washer at the cemetery.
In a tattered purple notebook, Abdel-Amir Sultan has tried to keep track in a small recordkeeping office at the cemetery's outskirts. Only half of those burying their dead registered their names with him, he said. Of those who did, 120 names were scrawled in blue ink across two pages on the entry for Sunday, soldiers and civilians killed by shooting, shrapnel, bombing or mines. It was 126 on Tuesday, 93 on Thursday. Over the past week, the number of pages in the notebook assigned for each day has tripled.
"The war was not clean," he said, walking with a cane from childhood polio that crippled his foot. "It was destructive."
From Baghdad and cities across southern Iraq, people began arriving this morning. In a procession of sorrow, they came in minibuses and pickups, in taxis and vans, with simple wood coffins lashed to the roofs. Some bodies were hardly recognizable, exhumed after days, even weeks, from hastily dug graves. Others were only recently discovered at hospitals and mosques where they had been stashed with other corpses in the chaos of war.
For those in Najaf, it was a day of piety, visiting the city that is the burial site of Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures. They reflected, on a war that remains more than a memory. And they expressed anger, at carnage that, to some, remained incomprehensible.
"Everything we have in Iraq is rich, our oil, our resources, our land," said Shamil Abdel-Sahib, a 33-year-old who performed ritual washing of the bodies as they were brought to the cemetery. "The only thing that is cheap in Iraq is its people."
With five others, Abdel-Sahib awaited the corpses that began arriving at 10:30 a.m. in clouds of dust. "There is no god but God," pallbearers cried as they rushed the coffins into a room of stone floors and tile, holding two tubs of water girded by four concrete slabs. At the edge of one, two sticks of incense burned. Relatives still covered their faces. Sahib and the others simply went to work.
Many of the bodies were dismembered or too badly decomposed to wash. For those, they padded them with sand as permitted by Islamic ritual. They washed those that remained whole, first with soap, then with water. They sprinkled camphor over the corpses, then covered them in plastic. They finally wrapped them in white sheets, tied at each end and across the legs and chest.
The bodies began arriving last week, when the road to Najaf reopened. Since then, the workers here said, the numbers have overwhelmed them.
"All I do now is receive dead bodies from the bombing," said Tariq Ghazi, another cemetery worker.
By 1:30 p.m., there were 71 entries for Friday of those killed in the war.
That was before the family of 42-year-old Qassem Moussa brought his body.
"Lift, lift," his brother, Haidar, said, as the family heaved the coffin off the pickup truck. A teacher from the southern city of Hilla, he was killed three weeks ago as he headed to his school at 7 a.m., his family said. They blamed cluster bombs.
With fighting still raging, they had hastily buried his body at the Omran bin Ali Mosque and waited until the road to Najaf was clear.
To mournful recitation read from a well-worn Koran, workers padded his badly decomposed body with dirt. His head was missing.
His brother was angry, and as he watched the ritual, he blurted out questions.
Why did the war inflict the most casualties in the south, the home of Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite Muslims? Why was the home of Saddam Hussein and his family in Tikrit left virtually untouched? Why did his brother have to die in war that the United States claimed was meant to free them?
"We don't want the Americans. We don't want their freedom," he said. "The Americans killed him. George Bush killed him."
With that, he and his eight relatives took the body and headed to conduct prayers for the dead at the shrine of Imam Ali.
With its gold-leafed domes and cascade of turquoise tile, the shrine is one of Shiite Islam's most sacred places. To Shiites, Ali was Muhammad's rightful heir, a claim that produced Islam's most lasting division. By tradition, on his death in 661, he asked his followers to put his body on a camel and bury him where it rested. That site was Najaf, along the Euphrates, and to this day, Shiites spend a lifetime's savings to be buried in the cemetery that stretches miles near his shrine.
In the early afternoon, coffins rested across its marble floors, prayers echoing amid the chatter of pilgrims.
"This is the burial place of Imam Ali," Abdel-Hadi Madlul said. "Imam Ali protects the land."
With his relatives, Madlul brought the body of his brother, Amir, to the shrine after it was washed. He was killed in Baghdad, as U.S. forces prepared to enter last week, and his corpse had been buried with 50 others in makeshift graves near the Um Tabul mosque. They found it Wednesday, identifying it by his car keys seared into his body, which Madlul said was burned "like coal."
"I had an inner feeling that it was my brother," he said.
After the prayers, they returned to the cemetery, gathering around a plot so crowded that cemetery workers had to dig a vertical hole to place him under the tomb. Men turned their hands upward to heaven and mumbled, "There is no god but God."
As they lifted the body, some men started crying. Another slapped his forehead in grief. A cemetery worker hired by the family recited more prayers, the words flowing almost unconsciously in a routine practiced thousands of times.
"We are from God and to God we return," he said.
As he recited the names of Ali's descendants, the imams at the center of the Shiite faith, workers swept the fine sand of the cemetery into the grave. The men, their hands still upturned, chanted, "The prayers of God on Muhammad and the family of Muhammad."
Around the corner, along another warren of tombs, Subhi stood before the 10 bodies of his family. Weeks later, he said he has not forgotten a moment that surrounded their deaths. It started with a man-made storm, he said, wind blowing across his neighborhood. Explosions thundered outside, and he turned to his mother, huddled with relatives in two rooms.
"Are you afraid of the bombing?" he joked.
Seconds later, his house was destroyed. He escaped, but his father, mother, wife, son, two daughters, two sisters, brother and 5-year-old niece were still inside, all of them dead. His three other children were still in the hospital Friday, his 18-year-old daughter, Bidour, burned so badly, he said, that doctors might have to amputate her right leg.
After the bombing, they took the bodies to a hospital, but there was no room and no refrigerators to keep the bodies from decomposing. They could not wash them or find a coffin, so they buried them near their home, waiting for the road to Najaf to open.