NAJAF, Iraq – Wailing and pounding their chests in grief, a dozen women clad in mourning black gathered around a tomb in the massive cemetery in Iraq's holy Shiite city of Najaf. A short distance away, a grief-stricken man cried silently inside his car, parked next to a friend's tomb.
The two granite tombs belong to Shiite militiamen who fell in the ongoing campaign to dislodge the extremist Islamic State group from the northern city of Mosul. They are the latest addition to the cemetery known as Wadi al-Salam, or Valley of Peace, already home to millions of graves of Shiites from Iraq and elsewhere. It's the final resting place of choice for pious Shiites because of its proximity to the shrine of Imam Ali, the much revered 7th century founder of their sect.
For decades, the Najaf cemetery's rapid expansion has testified to the scale of violence of Iraq's contemporary history, from the ruinous 1980-88 war with neighboring Iran to the costly conflict over Kuwait and finally 13 years of almost uninterrupted bloodshed starting with the U.S. led invasion in 2003.
With the government not publicizing the casualty figures of the Shiite-dominated security forces fighting in Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq, the cemetery offers one reliable, if not entirely accurate, indicator of battlefield losses from the government side. Sunni soldiers who die fighting are buried elsewhere.
Authorities in late 2014 set aside a new section of the cemetery for Shiite militiamen and members of the security forces who fell in battle against IS.
Gravediggers now say they bury an average of 20 of them every day.
"Whenever there is a big offensive, the number increases to 40 or 50," said Shakir Mahmoud, a 48-year-old gravedigger.
With the Mosul campaign now in its fifth week, a new plot has recently been allocated next to the roughly 10 square-kilometer (four square-mile) cemetery to accommodate the rise in casualties.
Haider Moussa, 23, was among the tens of thousands of Shiites who answered the call to arms by Iraq's top Shiite cleric in the wake of the IS sweep across northern and western Iraq in 2014. He is now buried in the Najaf cemetery, according to his brother Mohammed.
Haider was already in neighboring Syria fighting anti-government Sunni extremists when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for jihad, or holy struggle, in June 2014. He joined the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the "League of Righteousness," one of the larger Iraqi militias, and was killed the following year while trying to haul away the body of a friend killed fighting IS north of Baghdad.
"We are all ready to sacrifice ourselves," said Haider's brother Mohammed Moussa, a 22-year old fighter from Baghdad's northern Shiite neighborhood of Shula who is now deployed north of the capital. "We will continue fighting and, God willing, we will take Mosul no matter what Daesh does," he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
He and another sibling were crying on Thursday as they sat near Haider's tomb in a section of the cemetery designated for Asaib Ahl al-Haq's militiamen. Earlier, they washed his tomb with water and later burned incense over his tomb. Like other tombs, Haider's was decorated, in this instance with plastic red and yellow flowers and his picture. Inscribed on his tomb stone were his name, date of birth and death, and where he was killed.
Not far from that plot, a woman stepped out of a taxi after a two-hour ride from the southern Wassit province to visit to her dead son's grave.
Sabriya Mohammed's son was an army soldier killed in May 2016 in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad when a bomb went off next to his car while he was rushing a wounded friend to the hospital.
The 71-year old Mohammed said her son, 39 when he died, had planned to quit the army after one last tour of duty to spend time with his family and make a living driving a taxi in his native Wassit.
"I Have no one else. I feel terrible," said the crying mother as she stood next to her son's tomb. "What sin did all these dead men commit? They all died in vain."
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