As an undertaker in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Kerbala, Faris al-Kaa’bi has had an unusually busy summer.
His niche is burying the bodies of the unclaimed and the unidentified from all over Iraq, which in the last few months has meant hundreds of victims of the fight against Sunni Islamist militants.
“The tough situation we face in this job is that most of the bodies we receive are decayed and torn apart,” he said, walking past row upon row of neat graves in ‘his’ section of the cemetery, their white conical gypsum headstones left blank.
It is almost impossible to determine who the victims are, but Kaa’bi says they come from Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit – scenes of the fiercest battles between Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters and a mostly Shiite Iraqi army so weak and demoralized that it has had to seek the help of volunteer militias.
In the latest swing of Iraq’s sectarian pendulum, resentment is again growing among the Shiite majority – repressed under the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, aggressively dominant under elected premier Nouri al-Maliki, and now ruled by a government seemingly unable to stop the advance of ISIS.
The fundamentalist Sunni militant group, an offshoot of the Al-Qaeda wing responsible for much of Iraq’s last bout of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07, swept across the north in June, seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and now controls a third of the country.
“Since the fall of Mosul, we have received around 8,000 bodies, including anonymous bodies of people killed by bombs and sectarian killings and around 3,000 soldiers,” Kaa’bi said.
With the tide of deaths registered in Kerbala and elsewhere showing no sign of abating, some Shiites are starting to complain out loud that the government and army command are incompetent at best, culpable at worst, and covering up the true of extent of battlefield losses.
While followers were quick to respond to a call by Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to take up arms against the insurgents, many now want someone to take the blame for the thousands of deaths.
“The government has to bring those who let us down to justice. If they don’t try them, we will bring them to justice. We will topple the state,” said Nidal Abd-Mohammad, who lost his son Haider at the former U.S. base Camp Speicher in June, where about 1,500 soldiers and security officers were captured and killed by ISIS according to a U.N. report.
Last month, the militants killed or captured 400 to 600 soldiers when they overran the Saqlawiya base, just an hour from Baghdad, according to a senior security official.
The government itself has not released definitive figures and has consistently put the death tolls lower than first-hand accounts. Many families, presuming that their menfolk are dead rather than merely “missing,” are angry that the government has not been able at least to return the bodies to them.
Fadel Abbas said his 27-year-old son, a reservist in a unit assigned to protect oil pipelines, had been at Camp Speicher. With no word from him since a final text message, the fruitless quest to find him took Abbas to Baghdad’s Muthanna airport, where all the wounded and dead are brought in.
“We stayed there for five days, a week. We’d stay all day until they’d say no plane is arriving. The bodies that were there, time had passed on them, it was hot, June – they were bloated, they were black.”
“If I had just let him stay next to me, unemployed, that would have been better,” he sobbed. “Now a home is broken.”
Others go to the Baghdad morgue to trawl through a file of photos of the dead.
One foreign diplomat said that, since the start of military operations in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province in January, medical officials were sending “body bags for 250-300 soldiers a week to the Defense Ministry.”
“The army has been totally decimated,” he said. “They have no weaponry. They have no supplies. They are sending these young boys out to places like Samarra to sit in the sun with no water for days on end.”
He had even been told of soldiers suffering from brain damage for lack of water.
In Diwaniya, south of Baghdad, dozens of families are holding a daily protest. Calling themselves the “Diwaniya Campaign Demanding Retribution,” they want investigations into the massacres to be made public and are urging the town council to boycott the central government until this happens.
“Our sit-in will continue until all our demands are met, otherwise it will turn into civil disobedience,” reads a flier with nine demands, under the headline “Stop them, they are responsible.”
Mostafa, a 28-year-old volunteer fighter who answered Sistani’s call, wants revenge for two friends killed near Falluja. But, speaking in Baghdad, he was furious that the volunteers had not been trained or organized.
“Those fighting with me have no experience. I fight alongside a barber and a clothes-seller. After the fatwa came out, they went from their homes to the battlefield,” he said.
“The situation is getting worse day by day ... if it continues ... people will rise up against the government because they are not providing any reinforcements.”
Shrouds in secrecy
The new prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has vowed to reform the military, which has all but collapsed under the onslaught of ISIS, in the process surrendering an arsenal of advanced weaponry supplied to Iraq by the United States.
But after only a month in power, it is still too early to tell if he can implement major changes while the war rages.
And then there is concern that the militias, recruited as Shiites to fight Sunni insurgents, will open rifts themselves.
Sectarian and ethnic animosities run deep after a decade of civil war that has touched nearly every family. At its height in 2006-07, Shiite death squads and Sunni militants killed tens of thousands as they competed for the grisliest attacks.
With Sunni jihadists again carrying out atrocities against the Shiite Muslims whom they consider heretics, along with Kurds, Christians and Yazidis, there are once more regular reports of Shiite militias exacting revenge on Sunni citizens.
Last month, the campaign group Human Rights Watch documented how Shiite militias working under Maliki’s control were laying siege to Latifiya, raising fears that Sunni communities could be pushed permanently out of a belt around Baghdad. All signs point to that getting worse, even if figures are hard to come by.
Back in Kerbala, a cemetery employee described the secrecy that surrounds the burial of “unknown” bodies and makes it hard to gather evidence of the rising number of deaths.
“They bring bodies in fridge trucks and prevent anyone from using his mobile during the delivery operation,” he said.
“The whole process is shrouded in secrecy to avoid making a fuss about the increasing number of soldiers killed.”
For Kaa’bi, the undertaker, there is nothing to do but to take meticulous notes, for the rare cases when families who have found a photo or DNA match in Baghdad come to find the remains of their loved one.
He writes the number of each body in a notebook, together with the row and position where it is buried. “In 2006-2007 it was tough, and now it’s tough again,” he says.
On good days, Kaa’bi can show the family where their relative lies buried. Or at least, what remains of him or her. Some of his entries just say “Body parts.”
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