NAJAF, Iraq – Shiite Muslims come here by the millions, one by one across the miles — seeking, in death, the comfort of the religion and the prophets they revered in life.
On a desert plain at the edge of the holy city of Najaf, a burial ground called the Valley of Peace has been growing for nearly 1,400 years. Almost since the time of Muhammad, Shiites have ended journeys here, and now — in times of war and sacrifice — new arrivals are streaming in.
Stretching for miles, it is said to be the Earth's largest cemetery — and perhaps its most coveted.
"All Shiites want to be buried here," says Samira Ali Abdul-Hussein, owner of the al-Ghari Washroom, one of four where Muslim bodies are cleaned and prepared for burial. During the war, she said, they were washing about 100 bodies a day — 70 more than normal.
Sunday, like many recent days, was full of anguish and mourning. At least five people, victims of the war, were laid to rest as loved ones cried and moaned, having traveled hard roads to bring them here.
Hussein Mohammed Nasser was one of them. His parents say he was shot dead by U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.
"He didn't do anything to them. They just opened fire on people passing in the street and hit him," his brother, Ali, said as a gravedigger prepared the tomb.
For observant Shiites around the world, to be buried in the Valley of Peace is a dream. It sits near the tomb of the 7th-century Muslim Imam Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad.
Najaf has about 100 mortuaries to shepherd the dead to burial. The four washing parlors each has one room for women and another for men. "It is our job generation after generation," said Abdul-Hussein, who inherited the job from her parents.
Many of those brought to the Valley of Peace for burial had been interred earlier in their hometowns until the road to Najaf opened. Iraqi Shiites call such a practice Amana, or trust, a term for temporary burial.
The cemetery is a city unto itself, an ocean of sand where visitors could — and have — gotten lost. Its memorial markers range from simple marble to hulking brick monuments. Senior clerics' tombs are covered by domes; graves of people who died during the Iran-Iraq war are marked with small monuments that resemble metal cages.
Brig. Gen. Khudayer Abbas Itewi was one of those laid to rest Sunday, three weeks after he was killed when coalition forces bombed his camp north of Baghdad.
A relative said the senior Iraqi army officer died in the al-Taji military compound north of Baghdad on April 3. The road to Najaf was closed, so he was temporarily buried somewhere else.
"The Americans have killed my brother," a woman screamed as his casket was lowered from a bus to be washed. His mother stayed inside the bus, wailing.
Mohammed Habib Jasim brought the body of his son, Bassem, killed by Iraqi police while fleeing the eastern city of Baqouba. Abdullah Hammoud came to bury his son Mohammed, who he said was killed by American fire in a Baghdad suburb. Saleh Sharif brought the bodies of his brother, Naaim, and his sister-in-law Umm Hussein — he said U.S. fire cut them down in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
The cemetery has changed since Saddam Hussein's government was overthrown. The tomb of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, killed by Saddam's regime in 1999, has been reopened to the public. Saddam's police previously detained anyone who tried to enter.
Now, hundreds of people visit the tomb each day.