NAJAF, IRAQ // As a worker in one of the world's largest cemeteries, Majid Karim's livelihood always had a grim edge to it because of its intimate association with death. But his work went further, beyond the usual routines of digging graves, building tombs or keeping burial sites tidy.
He was a corpse smuggler. From the end of the 1980s and throughout the following decade, the 36-year-old said he was part of a gang that smuggled Iranian dead across the border and into Iraq to be laid to rest in Najaf cemetery, a vast burial site revered by Shiite Muslims. "We would get about five corpses every two weeks. Sometimes they'd come just as bones in plastic bags because it was too difficult to get a whole body through," he said.
Each body would cost as much as US$1,000 (Dh3,670), paid to the smugglers in cash by devout families who wanted their loved one to be laid to rest in Najaf, 160km south of Baghdad and 200km from the Iranian border. During the 18 years that Mr Karim worked in the cemetery, he estimated thousands of Iranian corpses had been smuggled and buried there, the place most Shiites want their bodies to be placed in order to be close to Imam Ali, the towering figure of their faith, who is also buried in Najaf.
"We were poorly paid at the cemetery, so the extra money was welcome," Mr Karim said. "We were happy to take the extra without worrying too much about where it came from." The body trafficking started, according to Mr Karim, while the Iran-Iraq war was still raging. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Iranians were killed in eight years of fighting. Because of the conflict there was no way Iran's Shiite war dead, including soldiers, would officially be allowed to cross into Iraq for burial, so an underground route was established.
Smugglers had to evade Iraqi border patrols and Saddam Hussein's ruthless security services while crossing hundreds of miles of wasteland with their load of corpses and body parts. "Not all of the bodies actually arrived in Najaf because of the security patrols," Mr Karim said. "There would be a Baath Party patrol, and we had to just dump the bodies quickly. Sometimes they would just get buried in the desert."
Initially, the smuggling took place across the borders in southern Iraq, according to Mr Karim, who laboured on the final stage of the route, putting the bodies into the ground. Today he works as a mechanic in a roadside repair shop about 60km south of Baghdad. After the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent uprising by Shiite across the south - one that was brutally put down with nearby US forces under orders not to intervene - the smuggling route was temporarily broken. It re-emerged in northern Iraq, with bodies crossing the Zagros Mountains between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Iran. The borders were heavily mined, but laced with numerous ancient smuggling routes, which make them impossible to fully block. Although the Iran-Iraq war was over by then, bad blood remained, and the two states only began to repair relations with the change of government ushered in after the US invasion of 2003.
Mr Karim said members of the Badr Organisation were heavily involved in setting up the corpse transfers. The Badr group is the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an anti-Saddam force that, under a different name, lived in exile inside Iran during the Saddam era, receiving military support from Tehran and fighting against Iraq. In 2003, it returned to Iraq and under the leadership of Abdul Aziz al Hakim has taken a prominent role in the current coalition government.
The subject is still extremely controversial, and officials in Najaf denied that Iranian soldiers were being buried in Shiite Islam's holiest cemetery at a time when Iraq and Iran were at war. Fadel Abdul al Zahra al Grawi office director for Najaf's deputy governor, rejected the claims. "We absolutely deny any allegations about Iranian soldiers or even ordinary Iranians being buried here during the war," he said.
"Three million Iranians come to visit Najaf every year, but they do so as a religious pilgrimage, not to visit graves of their family. "It's not possible for ordinary Iranians to be buried here." A spokesman for the office of Ayatollah Bashir Hussein al Najafi, one of the most important religious figures in Iraq, also said there were no Iranian soldiers buried in the famous cemetery. "This cemetery is really only for the Iraqi Shia," he said. "The reason the Iranians come to the cemetery to visit the graves of Shiite clergy men who should be buried here."
However, another former Najaf cemetery worker confirmed details of Mr Karim's account. Abu Malik - who asked not to be identified in more detail - said he had personally buried Iranian war dead. "Mostly it was Iraqis, but I was in touch with some men who said I could make extra money if I buried Iranians," he said. "There were large groups of smugglers working in this business during the war. The problem they had was bodies are big and heavy, so they would take them apart and put them in plastic bags."
Abu Malik said the smuggling rings would often remove the flesh from a corpse and deliver only the bones for burial. "I saw that in the second year of the [Iran-Iraq] war as the numbers of Iranians being buried here started to rise." After the fall of Saddam's regime, dozens of Iranian families had tracked Abu Malik down, he said, to ask them where particular people had been buried in the sprawling cemetery grounds.
"Even today, many Iranian families come to visit the graves, and a lot of them ask me to show them to the graves of their sons," he said. "I know a lot of names and locations of graves; these things stay in your mind." Both Mr Karim and Abu Malik said they believed large numbers of Iranian and Iraqi opposition fighters, drawn from the Badr Organisation had ended up being buried in mass graves in the deserts outside of Najaf.
"If it was too dangerous to bring the bones in during the war, they would just put them in a mass grave, with the idea to move them later," Abu Malik said. "I heard of at least 200 sets of bones being put in one grave like that." Both gravediggers said they did not know the locations of bodies that had not made it as far as the cemetery. But they speculated that some of the mass graves unearthed since the war could have been bodies of Iranians dumped by smugglers who feared discovery by security patrols.