In Iraq, a grim job in the service of Allah

Sheikh Sudani is attacked for burying both suicide bombers and their victims.

Iraq's violence has meant a brisk business for Jamal al-Sudani. Sheikh Sudani quietly goes about the task of gathering the unclaimed bodies of those killed by bombs and bullets in Baghdad. For him it's an act of compassion, giving the fallen a proper Muslim burial.

It's dangerous work. Terrorists want to kill him because he cares for the victims of their suicide attacks. Others see his actions as an affront to their religious beliefs, since the remains of the bombers will end up being buried next to their victims.

But he's also earned praise for doing a job that few others will do - and in a small way bridging the country's sectarian divide by caring equally for the remains of Shiites and Sunnis. For Sudani, the job is simply an extension of his faith.

"I bury people; I don't say, 'That's a terrorist, that's a normal person.' I don't go to the hospitals to look for them specifically. But this is religion, this is what we do," he explains. "He's a human being after all, and if we don't bury him, who will?"

Sudani started his work 15 years ago, when the head of the Baghdad sanitation department confided that Saddam Hussein's henchmen were not properly burying the tortured bodies coming out of Iraq's jails. Sudani and nine friends took it upon themselves to wash and bury them correctly. They still fund the purchase of white shrouds and hire trucks to ferry some 35 unclaimed bodies a week to Najaf's Wadi as-Salaam cemetery, two hours drive south of the capital. The vast graveyard is within sight of the golden dome of the Imam Ali Mosque, where the cousin of the prophet Muhammad is buried, making it the favored burial site for Shiites from around the world.

Reaching Najaf is no simple task, however. The road south leads through one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq, the so-called "triangle of death," a hotbed of insurgency where hard-line Sunni gangs have been known to attack Shiite funeral corteges. The sheikh has had some narrow escapes driving down with his trucks full of coffins, he says, but for security reasons refuses to elaborate.

He had hoped the US-led invasion would allow him to wind down his mission and concentrate on the home for elderly people he also sponsors.

"But the fact is the number has multiplied tenfold," he says.

Sudani's dedication has won him respect at the Yarmouk hospital morgue in central Baghdad, where staff are grateful to him for solving a pressing problem.

Supervisor Najib Selman, with 17 unclaimed corpses in his rusting refrigerator, has nothing but admiration for the humble sheikh.

"He kisses our hands and begs us for the bodies," he says. "Some of the corpses are awful, I can't even bear to touch them."

Far from being grateful that someone is taking care of their dead, the insurgents want him dead, he says. "Most of the terrorists think I'm working against them: they kill people, and I bury them mercifully. That's why they consider me an enemy." He fears he is sometimes followed.

In addition, many of the suicide bombers are fundamentalist Sunnis, who consider Shiites to be apostates, worse than the infidel Americans. Burying Sunnis in the Shiites' holiest resting place is unlikely to please either side.

The authorities in Najaf have no objection to the burial of any Muslims in Najaf, be they Sunni suicide bombers or their Shiite victims. But some Shiite clerics are angered by the sheikh's work.

"These people should not be washed and buried because this will dignify their deaths. They do not deserve this. Such people deserve to be left in the desert to be eaten by dogs," complains one cleric, who asked not to be identified.

The sheikh is not deterred by the criticism, saying he is working simply for the grace of God. Still, he sees little sign that his macabre task will soon be over.

"I'm not hopeful about the situation. People are not on good terms with their religion," he says. "But if we all accept that we're just human beings, no matter what religion, then maybe it will be better."

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