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Volunteers collect Baghdad's nameless dead

  • Story Highlights
  • Volunteers dig graves by hand, bury Baghdad's unclaimed dead in Najaf
  • Sheik: "I look to them as human beings, with it my duty to bury them"
  • There were as many as 2,000 bodies a month following 2006 attack on holy site
  • Sheik: Number of unclaimed dead has risen drastically since U.S.-led war began
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Editor's note: This is part of a series of reports CNN.com is featuring from an Anderson Cooper special this week, "Live from Iraq," which airs at 10 p.m. ET.

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Volunteers prepare to bury the remains of dozens of unclaimed dead.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Sheik Jamal al-Sudani leads a group of volunteers with one of the most solemn tasks in Iraq: Collecting and burying the hundreds of unclaimed dead every month and giving them a proper burial.

"I only think about one thing: That one day, I will face the same fate as these people have faced, and will there be someone to take care of me and bury me, too?" the sheik told CNN.

The discovery of slain bodies in bustling, war-torn Baghdad is a daily fact of life, as ever-present as the lively markets, the solemn mosques, the blinding sunrise and the soft sunset.

Many of the bodies of the slain men, women, and children -- found on the streets, in the sewers and in the ruins of bombings -- have never been claimed because some are so mangled and charred, they're unidentifiable.

As a result, many people have no idea whether their loved ones were killed or took flight to other cities. Others are afraid because they are Sunni and won't cross sectarian lines to claim the bodies at the Health Ministry morgue, controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's hard-line Shiite followers.

And so religious volunteers, like al-Sudani, who regard a respectful burial of these victims of war as a crucial calling, have come forth to give the dead a proper resting place.

"I look to them as human beings, with it my duty to bury them so their sanctity will not be violated again after the violation of their killing," the sheik said.

This is the state of life -- and death -- in Baghdad: the cauldron of the Sunni-Shiite sectarian civil warfare that has escalated since the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra in February 2006.

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It is a reality in the back of the minds of officials such as Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the country -- both of whom will brief the U.S. Congress this week on the state of progress in Iraq. See the Iraq benchmarks »

The unidentified bodies have been showing up in significant numbers in morgues ever since the Askariya bombing, thought to have been carried out by Sunni militants.

Most of the dead are believed to be victims of sectarian animosity, slain after they were kidnapped or assassinated in so-called extra-judicial killings or in massive bombings.

Such grim volunteer work isn't entirely new to the region. Under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the sheik said, they often buried more than three dozen unidentified corpses a month.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, that number rose to around 250 a month, he said. Following last year's Askariya bombing, the volunteers buried as many as 2,000 per month. The numbers now are back in the low hundreds, the sheik said.

These volunteers -- also Shiites with access to the Health Ministry -- are compelled by conscience and faith and take it upon themselves to bury the dead in holy anonymity.

Despite their sectarian affiliation, these volunteers are moderate in spirit, intent on burying Sunnis and Christians, as well as members of their own sect.

"When I enter the morgue, I don't see these human beings as Christian, Shiite or Sunni because I see them in death, embracing each other," said al-Sudani, a cleric from a small charity in Baghdad's Sadr City.

It is arduous work for these Shiite volunteers, who do what they can to repel the touch and odor of death.

The sheik and his comrades haul bodies more than 150 miles from Baghdad to Najaf in refrigerated trucks, and the graves are dug by hand.

The bodies are numbered and photographed, and the information is put into a database. Then they are prepared for burial, washed in sand and wrapped in shrouds in the traditional Muslim fashion.

The bodies are laid side-by-side, two to a grave.

The process overcomes the sheik, who is struck by the depressing otherworldliness of the tragedy.

"Now you see Iraqis' houses, meant to be a family's safest place, have become like graves for their families, because any minute, any second, they're ready to die by explosion, airstrikes or car bombs."

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The sheik emphasized the gravity of today's horrors, compared with other eras. He and his volunteers don't need military or congressional reports to tell them of progress in Iraq -- for they bear witness.

"Now it's as if the streets are flowing with blood." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Youssif Basil, Tommy Evans, Michael Ware and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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