FALLUJAH, Iraq – Murmuring "God is great," two dozen Iraqi men collected corpses Tuesday in a U.S. Marine-directed effort to rid Fallujah (search) of festering bodies in keeping with Muslim (search) burial principles.
Officers said the Marines themselves could more quickly pick up the estimated 1,200 insurgents killed in a week of fighting, but agreed with Iraqis who felt it was crucial they retrieve the remains of their fellow Muslims.
"We're Iraqis and they're Iraqis and we want to get them," said Mohammed Ali, a 32-year-old farmer helping remove bodies. "It's in our religion. The rules say that relatives or families or Arabs should help them."
Gagging amid the overpowering stench of rotting flesh, the Iraqis had to take special care because of the danger that insurgents have booby-trapped some bodies with explosives. On one stoop, the Iraqis pushed over a corpse and a grenade rolled out of its pocket. The weapon didn't detonate, but Marines quickly hurried the workers away.
Bodies lay in homes, on verandahs and in shallow, makeshift graves, buzzed over by flies and darkened by days of decomposition. Muslims generally bury their dead within 24 hours, but the fighting prevented the interment of most corpses.
U.S. Marine Capt. Alex Henegar, a civil affairs officer attached to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (search), arranged the body pickup in Fallujah's hotly contested northern neighborhoods.
The collection began Sunday, with 22 corpses removed for a pauper's burial in a dusty lot on the outskirts of town.
The effort stalled Monday when the workers provided by a local religious leader demanded that Marines first open a road to their village, but they resumed work after Henegar arranged for a shipment of humanitarian aid. The crew recovered 14 bodies Tuesday.
Henegar, from Lookout Mountain, Ga., said he didn't think any other collection efforts were under way in Fallujah.
"There's no real theory behind it. It's the appropriate way of collecting the dead," he said. "It's their religion. They have their rites and we want to allow them to do it. The idea is to show respect to them, the Iraqi people, and their religion."
Henegar said authorities were eager to clear the city of bodies quickly, to lessen health risks for returning civilians.
Dr. Salah Al-Issawi, acting director of Fallujah General Hospital, voiced similar concern. "The city is completely isolated and we expect the decaying of dead bodies and the spread of diseases," he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.
Henegar and a small group of Marines escorted 24 Iraqis on three flatbed trucks into the northern Jolan neighborhood, where the volunteers were given latex gloves, surgical masks, hand disinfectant — but no payment.
"We have a whole pot of money for short-term reconstruction projects like this, but they won't take a dime," Henegar said.
The Iraqis said the Quran prohibits payment for helping in a burial.
In a state of barely contained panic, the Iraqis rushed into housing compounds to lift bodies onto blankets, then into the same body bags Marines use to transport the remains of their dead colleagues. The Iraqi men coughed, gagged and choked from the stench.
With each body, the Iraqi men whispered "Allahu akbar" — "God is great — three times.
They found four bodies that had been hastily buried outside a house in shallow graves, marked by cinder blocks. The Iraqis dug up the bodies, wrapped them in blankets and lifted them onto a truck. A message written on a wall in front of the graves identified the corpses as two men and two women.
"This is a disaster. But unfortunately it's the war," Sheik Hamed Farhan Abu Shahin, a local elder helping arrange the collection, told Henegar, who nodded agreement.
Bodies are scattered across Fallujah after fighting that began Nov. 8. The U.S. military declared the Sunni Muslim stronghold captured within a week, with 38 Americans, six Iraqi soldiers and an estimated 1,200 insurgents dead.
"This exemplifies the horrors of war," said Marine Capt. P.J. Batty, from Park City, Utah, of the body pickup. "We don't wish this upon anyone, but everyone needs to understand there are consequences for not following the Iraqi government."