It is midmorning when the family of Adel Shamshur arrives in the gravediggers market, with Mr. Shamshur's coffin strapped to the top of their car. The gravediggers surround the car, negotiate a price, and decide where to bury the 30-year-old merchant, who has died of a heart attack.
There is only one place the gravediggers won't go, and that is the Old Cemetery, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the 13-day standoff between Shiite militants and American forces that continued throughout Monday with fierce battles and explosions in the heart of this holy city.
Within minutes, the bereaved family chooses the lowest bid (25,000 dinar, or $17), and tear down the road to the second-best cemetery in town, still only half a mile or so from the American front lines.
"This cemetery is just as good as the Old Cemetery," says Ghali Mehna, the family patriarch, who has just driven about 110 miles to bury his cousin in Najaf. Like many Shiites, his family hopes that burying Shamshur close to the Shrine of Imam Ali will ease his passage to Paradise.
"We were very worried that we might die on the way here ourselves, there were so many checkpoints, so many US Army convoys, and helicopters, too," says Mr. Mehna. "But still we insisted to come to Najaf. It is our faith."
Even in the fiercest fighting of the past two weeks, Iraqi Shiites continue to bring their dead to Najaf in the hopes of placing their departed relatives as close to the Shrine of Imam Ali as possible.
The cemeteries of Najaf are the largest in the world - the Old Cemetery alone is estimated to be 35 square kilometers, and growing. It's a massive industry for the city, and a stable source of income for hundreds of gravediggers, who once worked the hallowed ground of the Old Cemetery, which has recently become a deadly battleground where US soldiers and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
"Najaf is just for pilgrims and for dead people," says Ali Hamza Jaffar, a gravedigger. "If the Americans set up roadblocks and stop the pilgrims and dead people from coming, there will be no business here at all."
It's hard to tell now, but residents say that Najaf once was a lovely city of tourist hotels, bustling markets, and aquamarine-tile mosques. The holiest site in the Shiite faith is here, the Shrine of Imam Ali, cousin of the prophet Muhammad, which until recently drew millions of tourists each year.
Now that the shrine is at the center of a deadly battle between Mr. Sadr's militia and US Marines and Army forces, the tourist trade has dropped almost to nil, but the dead bodies keep coming. Grieving families from all over Iraq, as well as from Iran, Pakistan, India, and much of the Middle East, still drive the roads to Najaf to bury their relatives here. After all, you only die once.
With fighting still raging in parts of the Old Cemetery, which lies adjacent to the shrine and the Old City, gravediggers now refuse to work there. Instead, they are happy to bury the dead in temporary graveyards, such as a place called Sayid Hamza, and rebury them later in the Old Cemetery once the fighting is over and peace is restored.
Haider Kareen, a longtime gravedigger, says he stopped working in the Old Cemetery about 10 days ago. At the time, he was already feeling it was unsafe to go to the Old Cemetery, which he still prefers to call by its traditional name, the "Valley of Peace." But one family prevailed upon him to bury their relative there. Mr. Kareen sent an employee, Maqi Hamid, to do the job. Then catastrophe struck.
"A helicopter flew over the funeral and fired at them," he says, recalling what he had been told by surviving witnesses. "There had been fighting nearby, and I refused to go, but the relatives put pressure on me, and I sent my assistant. The helicopter killed Maqi and several of the relatives of the dead man."
It took Kareen and his helpers two days to recover the bodies of the gravedigger and the relatives of the deceased. "Not even in the uprising of 1991 did I ever see such fighting or destruction," says Hassan Jilue, a gravedigger, referring to the insurgency by Iraqi Shiites after the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein threw the full force of his military against Shiite militants then, massacring them inside the Shrine of Ali itself.
Ali Mahsen, a relative of Shamshur, admits it might seem odd to risk one's own life to bury a relative in Najaf.
"This is not just something we do today, it has been a tradition for 1,000 years," says Mr. Mahsen. "We believe - we are sure - that if you bury someone here, even if he is guilty of some crime, it will help him to reach Paradise."
Talib al-Rubai, another relative of Shamshur in an elegant white dishdasha and black-checkered headscarf, is disgusted that militants have chosen to fight in Najaf.
"Fighting here is not accepted under any circumstances," he says bitterly, noting that he blames both the Shiite militia of Mr. Sadr and the US military. "If somebody wants to fight, they should go out of Najaf and do it someplace else. They call this cemetery the Valley of Peace, but what kind of peace is this?"