By Dominic Evans and Raheem Salman
NAJAF Iraq (Reuters) - Responding to an appeal from Shi'ite clerics, Salah al-Wa'ili signed up earlier this month with a militia near Baghdad fighting the Islamist insurgents who have swept through northern Iraq and threatened the capital.
A week later the 27-year-old part-time fighter was dead.
Killed in battle against Sunni militants near the western city of Ramadi on Friday, he joined the growing list of casualties from the latest wave of conflict to strike Iraq, which has been plaged by war, sanctions and sectarian strife for longer than Wa'ili's brief lifetime.
For relatives who buried him on Friday in the sprawling and ever more crowded cemetery known as the 'Valley of Peace', outside the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, grief was mixed with a bleak familiarity.
Salah was laid to rest in a family plot next to the graves of three generations of relatives killed in conflict and internal unrest stretching back to the year he was born, when Iraq was fighting Iran.
"We are used to giving up martyrs. We are a country of sacrifice - this is our fate," said his uncle Abdul-Hussein al-Wa'ili, before Salah's body was taken to be buried alongside his slain uncle, cousin and a great uncle.
The United Nations said more than 2,400 Iraqis - two thirds of them civilians - were killed in violence last month, when Islamic State militants launched their offensive through Iraq's mainly Sunni Muslim provinces.
That death toll was three times the level recorded in May, and reminiscent of Iraq's sectarian civil war in 2006 and 2007.
The busy funeral industry in Najaf, where dead Shi'ite soldiers, militia fighters, volunteers and civilians are brought from around the country, suggests that casualty rates are at least as high this month as in June.
"We deal with an average of 25 bodies a day," said Ali Hashem, who runs the Martyr Sadr center where the dead are brought for ceremonial washing before burial, one of five such places in Najaf.
Hashem said that number is still significantly less than during Iraq's bloodiest chapter seven or eight years ago, but the inability of Baghdad's politicians to end their political feuding offers little hope of a resolution to the new crisis threatening to fragment the country along sectarian lines.
"So far this morning we have three bodies already," Hashem said, speaking shortly after 10 o'clock on Saturday morning. Those from Iraq's more distant provinces come later in the day, he added. "We're always working, even at night - before prayer and after prayer."
"I feel drained, on a physical and human level," he said, sitting under portraits of the Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose forces fought U.S. troops in Najaf a decade ago, and his father Mohammad Sadr, killed four years before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Saddam's overthrow ended decades of state suppression of Iraq's majority Shi'ites but also paved the way for a Shi'ite-led government which is accused by opponents of marginalising Sunnis and Kurds, creating discontent which has helped fuel the latest conflict.
Outside Hashem's office a dozen women dressed in black sheltered in a small patch of shade from the blistering morning heat. Some cried as another body was brought in to be cleansed and wrapped in white burial shroud.
Men, some looking numbed and shocked, wandered between a registration office, where dozens of new shrouds were piled up on one side, and the washing rooms.
PRIDE AND GRIEF
Salah's family and fellow fighters chanted proudly that he died a martyr as they carried his plain wooden coffin, draped in the red, white and black colours of the Iraqi national flag, to Najaf's Imam Ali mosque for funeral prayers.
Islam's fourth caliph Imam Ali, killed while he prayed near Najaf 1,300 years ago, is believed to be buried in the golden domed mosque. A central figure in Islam's enduring Sunni-Shi'ite schism, Ali is revered by Shi'ites who have a long tradition of venerating martyrdom.
"(Salah's) sins were washed away because he was a martyr. I wish I were with him," Salah's uncle, Abdul Hussein, said of his nephew as he stood by the mosque - Shi'ite Islam's third holiest religious site.
"All our sons are volunteers. We are happy for his fate."
But for other relatives, the loss was overwhelming. Women and men alike wept openly or beat their chests in grief, at one stage prompting a uniformed mourner to chastise them - "Shame, why are you crying for a martyr?"
"Salah, answer me. You've killed me," cried one of his brothers, distraught and red-faced. "You're still young, handsome, newly married," he said of the young man who was a pipefitter by trade and who left behind a pregnant wife and young daughter.
Lifting his casket atop a minibus, they drove Salah's body into the cemetery which stretches five km (three miles) from the mosque across Najaf's dusty terrain, millions of graves packed so tightly that each one is barely an inch from the next.
"This is my brother, Abdel-Amir, killed in 1987 at Buhairat Asmak in the Iran war," Salah's uncle Hanoun al-Wa'ili said, reaching out to touch a well preserved white grave marked with simple black writing.
"My son, Haidar, killed in Basra, 2009. He was 23," he said, pointing to the next. "My uncle, Abed, killed by gangs in 2007," indicating another, while gravediggers cleared the last bit of sandy soil from a hole, less than a meter square, for Salah.
Carrying his coffin in the cemetery were members of the Shi'ite militia Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, with whom Salah was fighting when he was killed on Friday, and their commander, Haidar Tamimi, in khaki uniform with a 'Special Forces' badge.
Tamimi said six Iraqi army soldiers died alongside Salah during the fighting in Ramadi, which he described as an existential struggle for Shi'ites against an enemy bent on eliminating them and their places of worship.
"We lost such a large number of martyrs because our sect is targeted. They want to eradicate the Shi'ites, that's why we volunteered to defend the sacred shrines."
"Hundreds will follow Salah."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)