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

Militias are sending Covid-19 dead for burial at the Valley of Peace in Najaf despite official pleas to stop

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A rift about Shiite burials while Iraq experiences a spike in coronavirus deaths has highlighted how religious disputes and politics are undermining efforts to contain the pandemic.

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 perimeter.

On one side are doctrinaire adherents who are encouraging burials at the cemetery in the parched lands on the edge of Najaf, despite movement bans designed to contain the coronavirus.

On the other are their more pragmatically inclined fellow believers who are concerned about what they say is a pandemic that is becoming unmanageable, with corruption rampant in the public health system and the rest of the bureaucracy.

Iraq has officially registered 1,839 deaths from the pandemic, mostly in the past several weeks, and 47,151 cases. But official figures are widely believed to represent only a fraction of the real number of infections and deaths.

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

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

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

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

A health ministry spokesman earlier this month singled out the same districts as being responsible for the worst breaches of a curfew in the capital.

Iraqi Shiite leader and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr delivers a speech to his supporters following Friday prayers at the grand mosque of Kufa in the central Iraqi shrine city, some 160 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad, on September 21, 2018. (Photo by Haidar HAMDANI / 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 infected with the coronavirus.

“This is a dangerous proportion. 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 mentioning the militias specifically.

The Hashed has sought to improve its image among impoverished Shiites, who constituted the core of the Iraqi uprising against the entire political class that 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 buried 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 past 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 forbears.

His position on the coronavirus has alternated between urging his followers to ignore measures by the authorities 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.

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