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By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

NAJAF, Iraq — The unadorned wooden boxes arrive lashed to car roofs or secured in the beds of pickup trucks, a steady procession of mortal remains on a doleful final journey to this holy city.
Only days ago, they were enthusiastic Shiite Muslim recruits who answered the call of their clerics to fight a Sunni Arab insurgency. Now they are coming home lifeless and broken — the victims of bullets, bombs, and shells.

Each day brings the remains of dozens of young men honored as martyrs. First, they are given a ritual washing. A fleet of converted golf carts, painted black, stands by to shuttle their caskets to a farewell blessing at the majestic shrine of Imam Ali, an important figure in Shiite Islam. Finally, they are buried in the Valley of Peace, one of the largest cemeteries in the world.

Among the plain coffins that arrived Wednesday was one containing the remains of Anwar Jassem, 26, who last month joined Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, or League of the Righteous.

“Anwar wanted to go to battle for Iraq, for his homeland,” said an uncle, explaining that the militiaman was felled by a sniper’s bullet a day earlier near Fallujah, a bastion of Sunni insurgents fighting to overthrow the Shiite-led government.

As Iraqi forces battle a Qaida breakaway faction and its allies, there has been no official word about casualties among pro-government forces. But the numbers are mounting daily in what by all accounts is a grueling guerrilla war against a well-armed and experienced adversary.

Iraqi state media tout the abundant deaths of “terrorists” in dispersed battle zones to the north and west of the capital. In Baghdad, the war seems far away, with the Ramadan fasting season proceeding at a torpid pace beneath the sweltering midsummer sun.

But here in Najaf, final resting place of the Shiite masses, the rising death toll is impossible to ignore.

The roster of the lost is largely composed of young men such as Jassem, idealistic and fervent volunteers who followed their religious leaders’ fatwa to enlist and soon found themselves thrown onto the front lines.

Facing them are seasoned and dug-in Sunni insurgents, among them skilled snipers, expert bomb makers and savvy street fighters. Many have extensive experience battling U.S. troops, Iraqi forces, and, in some cases, the neighboring Syrian army and its allies.

By contrast, many Shiite volunteers appear to have had little formal training, according to interviews here. They were rushed into battle as Iraqi army units disintegrated and the government scrambled to deflect an existential threat.

“They’re being thrown out there without training against experienced soldiers,” said an undertaker in this shrine city, where death is an industry and war means more business.

While proud of the young men’s courage, the undertaker also seemed appalled that so many were so ill-equipped. “They have no chance,” said the undertaker, who gave only his first name, Salim, for privacy reasons.

Distraught relatives from a sect long steeped in martyrdom are left to mourn their losses and try to comprehend what happened. Cell phone calls from military units daily convey news of loved ones’ deaths. The bodies soon follow, brought first to a military air base in Baghdad. Some coffins were wrapped in nylon to prevent blood from leaking.

“They called us and said he had been shot,” said Salah Jubayr, mourning his son, Ali Hussein, 24, killed the previous day in Ramadi, another Sunni insurgent stronghold in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. “He just volunteered 10 days ago.”

With little training, Ali Hussein was placed in a police unit in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. Ramadi was a hub of Sunni resistance to the U.S.-led occupation and of the subsequent rebellion against the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The ferocity of the resistance in Anbar was legendary among U.S. soldiers and Marines.

“He would call us and say there was fighting going on all the time,” said the distraught father, outfitted in a traditional tribal cloak and Arab headdress. “He wanted to volunteer even before the fatwa,” he added, referring to the edict last month from Shiite clerics urging young men to sign up at recruitment centers.

The grieving family was gathered at a site where bodies are washed and wrapped in white shrouds for burial, in accordance with Muslim custom. This washing establishment, subsidized by Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army once fought against U.S. troops, charges only about $20 for the service. The fees pay for the shroud, workers explained.

The number of body washings has doubled in the last month to about 60 a day, including many young men killed at the front, workers here said. This site is only one of many pre-burial washing spots.

“These are all soldiers who died doing their duty,” said Awad Moussawi, 52, who is among the staff of professional washers. “This is a necessary jihad. Islam will be victorious.”

The office held bundles of white shrouds and a cardboard box filled with plastic bottles of soapy water to be used in cleansing. Sand is preferred for washing if bodies are badly burned. Efforts are made to place severed body parts in their appropriate position, the washer said.

“I started doing this two years ago because I know I will receive a greater reward from God,” said Moussawi, who left his previous job as a perfume salesman.

Outside, the midday sun beat down relentlessly on the seemingly boundless horizons of the Valley of Peace. Domes adorned some graves, while others were marked with simple concrete headstones inscribed with Islamic texts and the names of the deceased. Stylized color posters here and there showed deceased young men come to life in various guises — in military uniforms, in suits and ties, T-shirts, and tribal robes.

AFP Photo / Ahmad al-Rubaye

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