For the grief-stricken of Iraq, burying the dead is a dangerous business

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When the thunderous explosion threw up its tall plume of smoke and dust a mere 600 yards away from where Radhi Salman and his two children were being buried, his grief-stricken family were barely distracted from the Koranic verses for the dead a relative was reciting over the plain wooden coffins they had brought from their local mosque outside Baghdad.

As one of the gravediggers worked, a colleague waved a white cloth at the US warplane droning overhead in the hope that this might somehow stop a bomb or a missile falling directly on the little band of mourners. Such are the hazards of holding a funeral in a battlefield.

But for the Salman family, poor farmers, religious and traditionally Shia, burying their dead anywhere but the Wadi al-Salam cemetery in Najaf was simply not an option.

Less than 10 hours earlier, Radhi, his 11-year-old son Razzaq and his two-year-old daughter Najwa had been sleeping in the garden of their house in a hamlet on the edge of al-Amin, to the south-east of the capital, when a US convoy had been ambushed on the road outside at about 4.30am. According to Alawi Latif, 59, a cousin, the convoy responded by shooting "randomly" through the darkness; Radhi, 25, and his children were caught in the firing. Two others in the family, including Radhi's mother, had been injured.

So the family set out at 9.30am yesterday in a convoy of two rented minibuses, each with a coffin strapped to the top, one carrying the 11-year-old boy, the other the father and his infant daughter, on the 100-mile journey from Baghdad, across the Euphrates and past the insurgent checkpoints in Kufa to bury the three in Wadi al-Salam, one of the biggest cemeteries in the world. Everyone interred there, Imam Ali, the prophet Mohammed's martyred son-in-law, had said, would go to paradise.

But this is a cemetery which for the past two and a half weeks has also been one of the main theatres of the battle the US Marines and Cavalry have been waging with Muqtada Sadr's Army of Mehdi for control of Najaf.

First the bodies had to be ritually washed. The dark gold of the contested Imam Ali shrine - the outer wall of whose courtyard was damaged by overnight shelling - dominated the skyline from about a kilometre away.

And Mr Latif spoke of why it had been necessary to bring the bodies to this place, where tombstones have been damaged by conflict. "The soil of Najaf is very holy," he said, "because Imam Ali is buried here. That is what is important. This is our tradition. Normally we would take the bodies to the shrine first but we knew we couldn't do this because of the war. Of course we were worried about coming here but we had no choice."

Another cousin and close neighbour of the Salman family, Abdul Khadim, was angrier at what had happened in the early hours. "The Americans are beasts. We tried to get into the house because we could hear people screaming. But we couldn't because of the shooting. They are human beings and we don't care if they are Christian or Muslims. They should treat us as human beings."

As if on cue, three US Cavalry Humvees drove into the car park of the block of washing rooms and offices where the cemetery is currently run by a tiny staff. They did not behave like beasts, but it was evident they had not been here before; two of the soldiers, finding a door locked, kicked it open to check for any hostile presence, while their dismounted comrades watched the scene warily and the children's grandmother continued to cry out imprecations to her own dead mother. But when the family asked us through our translator to tell the troops the mourners wanted to drive to the graves, they waved us through.

In the loneliness of the chosen burial place in the huge expanse of this cemetery of a million souls, you could see a row of Humvees on the near horizon patrolling in the hunt for insurgents, as the warplanes flew above and the explosions continued to resound, one alarmingly close. The grandmother, beside herself with grief, covered her face with sand and at one point sought to climb into her son's grave, while her daughter cried out for her dead brother from one of the minibuses. Before they finally laid his son, wrapped in cloth, in the freshly dug grave, the children's grandfather, half out of his mind at his bereavement, wailed: "Tonight I will prepare a dinner for him. What can I do?"

When we returned to the washing rooms, the US Cavalry had set up a checkpoint to search all vehicles, including the coffins themselves, for weapons. Specialist Brian Phillips stood on the roof of a minivan as an Iraqi carried out orders to open the coffin and show what lay inside; as the Iraqi uncovered the corpse of a man who may have been a Mehdi fighter, the side of its face blown through by a bullet, the American soldier exclaimed: "Oh my Jesus Christ, it's a young boy." He stood for a moment examining the body and then jumped from the minibus and ran some 20 yards before vomiting on to the ground. Nobody laughed at him. It wasn't a young boy, as he acknowledged a few minutes later, but a man of between 35 or 40. "I guess I hadn't seen a dead body like that so close before."

Another tall, fair-haired US Cavalryman, Staff Sergeant James Staden, eight months in Iraq, said: "There are good days and bad days." Normally based in Baghdad, "where you can get around, get to the shops and help people", he added: "Here it's more of a war zone."

And how long, we asked another Staff Sergeant, Brandon George, did he think the battle had to run? "That's what we all keep asking."

Asked how long his unit, here to support the US Marines, had been in Najaf, another soldier replied: "About three weeks. Three weeks too long."

On this at least, these soldiers from Texas and elsewhere across the US, aching to get home, or at least to Baghdad, from this cemetery which seems to encapsulate all the torments of Iraq, would agree with the extended family of the three Salmans, innocent victims of a continuing war. "I do not know who is controlling Iraq," said Mr Latif. "We call on Allah to provide security and stability."