Coronavirus: 'world’s largest cemetery' thrust to centre of Iraq’s fight against pandemic

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A rift about Shiite burials has emerged in Iraq amid a spike in coronavirus deaths, illustrating a gravitational pull of religion and politics undermining efforts to contain the contagion.

The split centres on the Wadi Al Salam (Valley of Peace), a sprawling cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. It is the most coveted resting place for Shiites from around the world and believed to be the biggest cemetery in the world, with millions of bodies within its perimetre.

On one side of the split are doctrinaire adherents to Shiism encouraging burials at the cemetery, which is situated among the parched lands on the edge of Najaf, despite bans on movement to contain the coronavirus.

Alarmed are more pragmatist coreligionists concerned about what they say is a pandemic becoming unmanageable, with corruption rampant in the public health system and the rest of the bureaucracy.

Wadi Al Salam, on February 19, 2020. AFP
Wadi Al Salam, on February 19, 2020. AFP

Iraq officially registered 1,839 deaths from the pandemic, mostly in the last several weeks, and 47,151 cases. But official figures are widely believed to belie a larger volume of infections and deaths.

A partial border shutdown since March sharply reduced outside traffic to the cemetery. The site contains remains of recognised Shiite theologians, politicians, and business players throughout centuries, along with less known people from all walks of life.

But there remains significant demand for burial at Wadi Al Salam from inside Iraq.

A Shiite-dominated militia constellation announced on Sunday that its cadres transferred 49 bodies of people who died from the coronavirus from hospitals across Iraq to Najaf.

Data released by the Popular Mobilisation Forces, or the Hashed, as the militias are known, showed that 14 out of the 49 came from slums in Baghdad.

A health ministry spokesman earlier this month singled out the same districts as most egregiously violating a curfew in the capital.

Moqtada Al Sadr delivers a speech to his supporters. AFP
Moqtada Al Sadr delivers a speech to his supporters. AFP

But Najaf governor Louay Al Yasiri told official media on Sunday that the dead should be laid to rest in their home regions, blaming burials at Wadi Al Salam for spreading infections in the city.

Mr Al Yasiri said that 160 out of 1,795 medical personnel in Najaf have been confirmed as infected with the coronavirus.

“This is a dangerous proportion,” Mr Al Yasiri said.

“A main reason behind the rise of cases is open provincial borders and allowing the bodies of the infected and those travelling with them to enter Najaf to bury them,” Mr Al Yasiri said, without referring to the militias.

The Hashed has sought to improve its image among impoverished Shiites, who constituted the core of the Iraqi uprising against the entire political class, which broke out in October 2019.

Militias in the Hashed and security forces partnered to mow down peaceful demonstrators and crush the uprising, citing earlier this year the coronavirus as a reason behind the crackdown.

One of the most prominent figures in Wadi Al Salam is Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Al Sadr, a Shiite theologian whose work focused on a synthesis between Islam and modern science as well as Islam and democracy.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called Al Sadr “our university”. Saddam Hussein executed Al Sadr after Khomeini made public a letter from Al Sadr congratulating Khomeini on the 1979 revolution, although the two Shiite figures were not in sync ideologically.

A cousin of Al Sadr, assassinated by Saddam's agents in 1999, was Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Al Sadr, father of Moqtada Al Sadr, the Shiite cleric who for the last decade has been kingmaker of Iraqi politics, and who supported the crackdown on Iraq's protest movement. His father too is buried in Wadi Al Salam.

Moqtada, however, is known as a more political operator than his non-violent forbearers.

His position on the coronavirus has alternated between urging his followers to ignore measures by the authorities to contain infections to expressions of support for social distancing.

On the 21st anniversary of the assassination of his father last week, he called off marches to his grave in Wadi Al Salam to mark the occasion, drawing praise from Mr Al Yasiri, the Najaf governor.

Moqtada’s decision, the governor said, was “an initiative to preserve society from this dreaded pandemic.”

Updated: June 30, 2020 05:44 AM

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