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Iraqi mortician sees more victims of violence

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, Mar 17 (Reuters) The services of Abo Ahmad, who prepares bodies for burial under Muslim law, are always in demand in Iraq, but amid increasing sectarian violence he is finding the task overwhelming.

From the usual two to three bodies a day brought to his premises in Kadhimiya, a district of northern Baghdad that is home to one of Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrines, the number has peaked at 17 a day.

He expects that total to rise, and for him it matters little whether the bodies are Shi'ite or Sunni.

''The night I washed 17 bodies I cried a lot more than their families did,'' Ahmad, 38, said. ''I see people who have been tortured and shot and others who died of bomb blast burns.'' Under Muslim law, a body must be cleansed before it is buried. Soaped first, it's then immersed in clean water, fragranced with camphor, to wash off blood and dirt. Finally it is placed in the coffin.

On a bench by the bath he uses to wash the corpse, Ahmad will plug bullet holes with cotton and then replace internal organs inside the corpse if necessary.

He has been washing the dead since he was a teenager, apart from a 10-year spell in the Iraqi army, but he believes this is the worst time for him since the day he washed 150 bodies, victims of the Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988.

''I'm tired of this work,'' Ahmad said, sitting in his office surrounded by washing materials, cotton shrouds, plastic sacks and readymade cloth coffins framed with wood.

''It causes me nightmares and I stay awake long into the night. Not because I'm afraid of dead bodies, I've seen too many, but it is a heart-breaking thing.'' Ahmad charges 25,000 Iraqi dinars (17 dollars) for materials but relies on tips from the family of the deceased for his livelihood.

''I don't get paid for this,'' he said. ''I only receive tips from the families. Sometimes they don't tip me at all.'' Preparation can take as little as half an hour or more than two hours. He recites verses from the Koran as he works.

Ahmad learned the business from his father, who learned it from his father. His father's shop was in Kerbala, 110 km southeast of Baghdad, but with his father dead Ahmad moved to Baghdad after the 2003 US invasion.

His own sons are too young to help him and still live in Kerbala with their mother.

Ahmad goes home for weekends when his work allows. Other times he sleeps behind the curtain that divides his living room from his office, ready for the next body to arrive. ''I'm wondering when all this is going to end,'' he said.


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