Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Deaths Become a Constant Blur in Iraq

Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press

Updated: 3:50 p.m. MT March 19, 2007

BAGHDAD - Only the gravediggers, some distant relatives and a few cousins made it to Nidal Faleh's funeral.

It was too dangerous for her immediate family to make the short trip from Baghdad to where she was killed in the Triangle of Death during a visit to see her elderly mother, or to bring her body back to the capital.

Instead, in this culture where a funeral is an important religious ritual and must take place soon after death, nearly no one was there as 49-year-old Faleh was buried.

On the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, the family's plight illustrates the crippling impact of daily violence.

"We couldn't even go ... to touch her. You know how bad the situation is," Faleh's younger sister, Arouba, said of last week's funeral.

In the blur of violence that Baghdad has become, a single death is often little marked by anyone outside the victim's family: Newspapers sometimes carry death notices, and neighbors and friends grieve. When Faleh died, the university where she worked as a professor of organic chemistry marked her passing with a memorial service.

But the numbers are so overwhelming that it can sometimes be difficult to remember that each death statistic indicates a life ended.

At least 47 other people, including a cousin killed with her, died in and around Baghdad on March 11, the day Faleh died _ all in the same way, blown apart by bombs.


It was a warm spring Sunday morning and Faleh had spent the weekend visiting her elderly mother in her hometown of Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad.

Married late in life and without any children, she was the sibling in the family who did the most for their ailing mother, visiting her regularly, her sisters say.

Shortly before 7 a.m., Faleh was in a hurry to get back to Baghdad to teach an 8:30 a.m. class. She washed down a piece of cheese with tea, kissed her mother and an aunt on their cheeks and walked out the door with her cousin, Kawkab Faleh, 42. Nidal Faleh drove.

"She asked me to pray for her as she left me ... Half an hour later, they gave me the news of the car," her mother said weeping, as relatives and friends gathered around at a mourning gathering last week at a son's home in Baghdad.

Two male cousins in Youssifiyah received the call, telling them a roadside bomb had detonated underneath the car, killing the two cousins. They rushed to the scene.

The explosive device, connected to a wire, had been hidden under dirt close to the highway's median and detonated under the driver's side, setting the white Oldsmobile aflame. It took Iraqi security men from a nearby checkpoint more than a half-hour to put out the fire.

Only skeletons remained of the two women; identity cards and the university exam papers Faleh had corrected until the early hours Sunday were burned to ashes.

As the men were trying to retrieve the women's remains from the car, a passing U.S. military patrol stopped, took pictures of the destruction and shook hands with the two men in sympathy before speeding away.

The roadside bomb had most likely been intended for U.S. troops or Iraqi security forces.

Nidal Faleh was a Sunni Muslim, but Shiite pilgrims often use the highway where she died to travel between Baghdad and a religious shrine to the south.

The highway also connects Baghdad to a belt of Sunni villages where al-Qaida and other Sunni religious extremists operate. The region is called the Triangle of Death because of the frequent attacks.


The hospital morgue in nearby Mahmoudiyah refused to issue death certificates or release the women's remains for burial until the cousins brought a letter from the local police station, because they were not next of kin.

Two hours later, the cousins handed the bodies over to other distant relatives for burial.

The men, who asked not be identified for fear of reprisals from Sunni insurgents, did not go to the funeral because it was too dangerous to travel the mile and a half to the cemetery.

Faleh's mother, who had only recently left Baghdad to live in her Youssifiyah home, was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral and made her way to Baghdad, instead, before dark.


Two days after Faleh died, the Pharmaceutical College at Baghdad University where she taught held a memorial ceremony for the professor whom students and faculty fondly called "mother of kindness."

Her family gathered to mourn at a brother's home in the Harithiyah neighborhood of Baghdad.

"She was the only one in the family who took care of mother and visited her regularly in Youssifiyah despite the dangers," said a sister, Wafa, 41. "She was my mother's treasure. I don't know how mother will survive without her. None of us can do what Nidal did for her," she said.

Her sisters say Faleh pursued her career and didn't marry until she was 38 _ an unconventional move in this conservative country. She married a widower and had no children of her own.

Faleh's husband, Mahdi Abdul Munim al-Khadhimi, a 60-year-old pharmacist, sat silently in a corner of the porch where the men of the family had gathered, as the mourning ceremony went on.

A picture on a brother's cell phone showed a smiling Faleh.

"They claim they are fighting the Americans because they are occupying our country," said Arouba, of the Sunni insurgents believed responsible for the bombing. "So why are they killing us?"

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