Many of my relatives are buried in this cemetery, including my mother's aunt, who died as a result of sanctions in 1991.
By PAUL SCHEMM
The Associated Press
'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, while 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 a 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 three square miles (7.5 square kilometers) - triple the size of the U.S.'s Arlington National Cemetery - according to 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 in recent years the flood of bodies has slowed.
"We used to receive 200 to 250 bodies a day, now it's less than a hundred," said Najah Abu Seiba, the patriarch of a family that have been gravediggers here for three centuries. "We used to work 24 hours a day."
At least 85,000 Iraqis were killed from 2004 to 2008, according to a report by Iraq's Human Rights Ministry last fall, although those figures are considered a minimum and do not encompass the entire length of the war. The figures included Iraqi civilians, military and police from all the country's sects and ethnicities.
On a recent day this month, the cemetery was peaceful, the wind whipping colorful flags flying over the graves, with only the occasional three-wheeled transports buzzing by, taking relatives to graves.
"My mother, father and brothers are buried here," said Mouayed Hamed al-Lami 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 mostly targeted Shiites. So by evening, minibuses stacked with coffins of many of the victims began pouring into Najaf.'