NAJAF, Iraq — The graves stretch some 10 miles into the desert, in what may be the largest cemetery in the world.
Near the center lie the older ones, packed closely together in a jumble of tall clay mounds and blue-domed mausoleums. Here is the final resting ground for those killed during Saddam Hussein's brutal regime or in the war against Iran and other cases and causes that date back centuries.
In the outskirts of the cemetery, the city fades into the background and the graves grow farther apart. This area is for the newly dead, the ones killed in the violence that erupted after the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003.
It is also for the missing.
For scattered among the marble tombstones are simple stone markers with numbers but no names, to show where the unidentified rest — about 22,000 of them, say cemetery officials. These are the ones who lie unclaimed, who died without a proper burial and ended up at the cemetery without their loved ones ever knowing.
It was here in the Wadi al-Salam, or the Valley of Peace cemetery, that 42-year-old refrigerator repairman Mahdi Jadoua Ahmed came looking for his two missing brothers.
Nobody knows just how many Iraqis went missing during the sectarian warfare that tore the country apart. But at least 17,477 unidentified bodies have been found since May 2005, according to an Associated Press tally based on reports from morgue and police officials.
That figure is only a minimum. Many Iraqis were afraid to report loved ones missing, and many more people may be buried in still-undiscovered mass graves.
Mahdi's search for his two missing brothers began nearly four years ago.
In December 2005, Mahdi's oldest brother Sami, 52, traveled from his hometown of Karbala to Baghdad with the dream of starting a business in Egypt. He planned to spend the night at a hotel and catch a flight to Cairo the next morning. His brother Adnan went along to see him off.
Instead, four men in civilian clothes with police badges showed up at the hotel and told the clerk the Mahdis were being arrested. The two brothers were never heard from again.
It could have been a robbery — Sami had a large sum of money with him for his travels. Or it could have been militiamen loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — Sami used to work in the information office in the Higher Education Ministry and was a member of Saddam's ousted Baath Party. Also, the hotel where the brothers were kidnapped lay in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, which was controlled by al-Sadr's forces.
After failing to hear from Sami and Adnan, Mahdi Jadoua Ahmed rushed to the hotel and demanded answers. The clerk said police had led his brothers away.
So Mahdi began looking in the places where the missing were still alive.
He started with the neighborhood police station. There, local officials said they knew nothing about the men's disappearance.
His next stops were the two most notorious prisons in Iraq.
He traveled to the U.S. detention facility known as Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. The American guards said his two brothers were not there. He then went to the Baghdad prison controlled by the Iraqi Interior Ministry and got the same answer.
His hopes of finding his brothers alive were growing dim. He went to the central Baghdad morgue, twice. But each time the morgue was crowded and he never got to see the pictures of dead bodies.
The first time he went late in the day, and was forced to leave when the morgue closed before his turn to view the photos came up. The second time he heard an explosion outside and left in a panic.
His family begged him not to go back, saying they didn't want to lose a third brother.
The search even led to several extortion attempts. One police officer took $1,000 in return for a promise to reveal the whereabouts of the missing men, only to disappear before a scheduled meeting.
The situation seemed hopeless.
Thousands of Iraqis disappeared during those years of chaos, either kidnapped for ransom or killed in sectarian warfare. People were snatched from buses, stores and fake checkpoints, often in broad daylight. Dozens of bullet-riddled bodies were found on the streets and in the river every day, lacking any identification because their documents were taken as trophies.
Execution-style killings became the leading cause of death among Iraqi civilians, ahead even of bombings.
At the central morgue in Baghdad, the bodies piled up in the courtyard. Morgue workers did their best to take pictures and assign the bodies numbers.
The morgue has received nearly 30,000 bodies in the past three years, says Dr. Munjid Salahuddin, the director of the Institute for Forensic Medicine. Ninety percent of those received in 2006 were unidentified, compared with 50 percent in 2007 and 15 percent in 2008, he says.
In March, Mahdi Jadoua Ahmed finally felt safe enough to go back to the Baghdad morgue, along with another brother and Adnan's wife.
The halls of the morgue were filled with women shrouded in black and men in traditional white dishdashas, carrying pictures of their loved ones and looking for resolution.
Mahdi registered at the entrance. They walked through the halls smelling of formaldehyde to a small viewing room where pictures of bloodied and bloated bodies flashed across a large screen in a gruesome slideshow.
They sat with a mixture of anticipation and dread.
They flipped through dozens of photos before Adnan's picture appeared, followed moments later by Sami's. Both men had been killed execution-style with a single bullet hole in their heads. Bruising showed Adnan also had been beaten.
When the family members saw the pictures, they started to cry. Adnan's wife beat her chest and head. The other brother fainted.
The bodies were easily recognizable. Morgue officials said they had been found by authorities near Baghdad's main Shiite stronghold of Sadr City only three days after their disappearance.
Morgue officials gave him the numbers of the graves and the caretaker's name and phone number.
The Wadi al-Salam is next to the shrine of the Imam Ali, who was believed by Shiites to be the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad and was killed in the seventh century. It holds the remains of centuries of mostly Shiites who wanted to be buried near one of their holiest saints.
Many mourners unload wooden coffins covered with colorful blankets from the tops of minivans and carry them to the shrine to be blessed, then back to the cemetery to be laid to rest.
The main undertakers for unidentified bodies in Najaf are a father-and-son team. At the height of the violence, they sometimes worked until midnight to bury the scores of bodies brought in weekly in refrigerated trucks — more than 100 a week in 2006 and 2007.
Ali Zayer-Daham, 34, and his father Sadiq washed the bodies according to Islamic custom. But sometimes only a prayer was possible because the remains were so badly decomposed.
The men would then note the location of the graves in small handwritten notebooks filled with scribbled maps and numbers. The books have proven increasingly useful as relatives show up to find their loved ones.
Now the number of bodies coming in is a trickle, down to a total of nearly 40 this year. The men keep busy finding the graves for relatives — about 15 per month now, up from seven per month in past years.
Many of the families are Shiites. Sunnis also are frequently identified among the victims in the 15 sections of unidentified graves, but Zayer-Daham acknowledges that their families are often still too afraid to travel to Najaf because it would require a trip through the Shiite heartland.
Mahdi, a Shiite, met Sadiq Zayer-Dahem at his dust-caked studio, a single room with a bench and stone slabs leaning against the wall, on March 29. They drove about 10 minutes to the graveyard.
There, he knelt for the first time over the simple white stones that marked his brothers' graves — numbers 11233 and 11235. And he wept.
The family is still grieving the loss of two brothers, but finally, there is a kind of peace. Mahdi has returned several times with other family members to light candles and spray rose-scented perfume on the graves, according to tradition.
"To know their fate and where their souls are resting is better than spending our whole life in anxiety," he says. "Their wives and children also can finally claim their inheritance."
Now the family has paid nearly $300 to erect brick tombstones, although the stone markers remain as a memorial.
The new graves are engraved with a Quranic verse, the date of death, addresses and the men's names.