Peace returns to Iraq's Valley of Peace

At the world's largest cemetery, Shiites praise the post-Hussein religious freedom

Freedom means many things in the new Iraq; for Shiite believer Hawiya Cotton, it means unfettering her grief at her husband's grave in the Valley of Peace cemetery. Kneeling, Mrs. Cotton leans toward the gravestone, throwing sand up over her black-shrouded head and crying with abandon.

The lamentations of the bereaved have echoed for more than 13 centuries in this, the world's largest cemetery, which stretches like a miniature city for six miles on one side of the valley and between three and six on the other.

It is the preferred resting place for Shiites in death - because many believe that proximity to Najaf's gold-leafed Imam Ali Shrine will ensure entry into heaven.

The gravestones in the Valley of Peace are also a record of the history of Saddam Hussein's brutal persecutions of Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims. And, it was here during those years, that the crypts became a refuge for the living, and a sanctuary for the resistance.

FOR decades, Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime tried to impose control through a series of assassinations and manipulations that depleted the top Shiite clergy and kept the community on edge.

Abdulrahman Nahi, a gravedigger here for almost 20 years, recounts how Hussein's security forces brought six young Shiites who had deserted from the Army during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. They were lined up against a wall, handcuffed and with sacks over their heads, then executed by firing squad.

Anyone nearby was rounded up and forced to witness the shooting. "They extracted the price of the bullets from the families, and didn't allow a funeral," Mr. Nahi says, pointing out the bullet holes that still scar the wall. "That was a special message for the Shia, that the government would not allow anybody to escape" military service.

But escape they did, thanks to the subterranean crypts carved out to house the bodies of entire families, called "sirdaps," or cellars. "Some people lived in these for years," says Nahi, as he leads the way down the stone carved steps of his family's crypt, which his father dug out in 1967. "This place gave them refuge from Saddam and his followers."

Dozens of men lived in the underground chambers during the 1980s, to escape the draft - and the lethal frontline of the Iran-Iraq war. "It was safe here, but there was no life.... It was exile," Nahi says, explaining how family members would sneak into the cemetery with food and other items, as if on a mission to mourn. "In the day [the draft dodgers] were down here, and at night they emerged - like ghosts - and walked all around."

The Valley of Peace has been famous in the Shiite world since the days of Imam Ali, cousin of the prophet Muhammad, and the first imam of the Shiite faith - who is said to have established the cemetery in 658 AD by praying over and blessing a man at a funeral. Three years later, the Imam died also - setting in train the building of the gold-leafed dome shrine that dominates the low-slung city of Najaf, and creating endless work for the 200 undertakers now resident there.

Shite legend holds that the biblical Adam and Noah are both at rest here; by one estimate the cemetery holds five million graves. With their faith's focus on death as a key to renewed life - part of Shiite concerns about devotion and martyrdom - many pilgrims are drawn here. But while most will spend hours inside the shrine close to Imam Ali's tomb, some limit their moments in the cemetery.

"There is a story told to us: Do not take too long there, or you will inherit cruelties of the heart and bad things, if you stand too long among the graves," says Abbas Ali, a white-turbaned sheikh from the Iranian holy city of Qom, who on this day is leading a group of Iranian pilgrims here.

The cemetery bears many of the signs of Hussein's repression. An uprising that swept the Shiite south and Kurdish north of Iraq immediately after the Gulf War in 1991 was put down in some cities with mustard gas hosed out of Iraqi helicopters at protesters, according US military witnesses at the time. In Najaf, some gravestones still bear the marks of bullets and of fighting around the cemetery. For four or five months afterward, the regime forbade burials altogether, and used explosives to blow up some graves to make way for access roads and to mount patrols more safely.

The next Shiite protest came after the killing by the regime of an especially anti-regime cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, in 1999. Hundreds of young men died in pitched battles in the sprawling Shiite slums of Baghdad, then known as Saddam City.

"Most of those killed by security forces in Saddam City were brought here by their families - each one had their left hand soaked in ink," says gravedigger Nahi, who says he saw 50 of the corpses. "Even today, no one knows why."

"Under Saddam, any funeral needed the permission from Najaf security to say where he was from and why he died," says Ayatollah al-Sheikh Faisal al-Assadi, who was tortured during 10 years in prison in the 1980s for religious offenses. "That means Saddam followed a person, even into death." He praises President Bush for toppling Hussein. "We feel we live deeply in freedom now, without any restrictions," says al Assadi.

Today, free from Hussein's restrictions by the US-led coalition authorities, about 150 burials take place each day in the Valley of Peace. Bodies exhumed from mass graves elsewhere in Iraq are being brought here to be reburied.

The hidden grave of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr - killed by the Hussein regime in 1980 and his body secretly given to an undertaker by two security agents, who alone knew its location - has also been recovered. He is being reinterred in a new shrine that is already attracting pilgrims.

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