BAGHDAD, March 30 -- On a cold, concrete slab, a mosque caretaker washed the body of 14-year-old Arkan Daif for the last time.
With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif's olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif's right arm and right ankle with the poise of practice. Then he scrubbed his face scabbed with blood, left by a cavity torn in the back of Daif's skull.
The men in the Imam Ali mosque stood somberly waiting to bury a boy who, in the words of his father, was "like a flower." Haider Kathim, the caretaker, asked: "What's the sin of the children? What have they done?"
In the rituals of burial, the men and their families tried, futilely, to escape the questions that have enveloped so many lives here in fear and uncertainty. Beyond some neighbors, family, and a visitor, there were no witnesses; the funeral went unnoticed by a government that has eagerly escorted journalists to other wartime tragedies. Instead, Daif and two cousins were buried in the solitude of a dirt-poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood near the city limits.
The boys were killed at 11 a.m. today when, as another relative recalled, "the sky exploded." Daif had been digging a trench in front of the family's concrete shack that could serve as a shelter during the bombing campaign that continues day and night. He had been working with Sabah Hassan, 16, and Jalal Talib, 14. The white-hot shrapnel cut down all three. Seven other boys were wounded.
The explosion left no crater, and residents of the Rahmaniya neighborhood struggled to pinpoint the source of the destruction. Many insisted they saw an airplane. Some suggested Iraqi antiaircraft fire had detonated a cruise missile in the air. Others suggested rounds from antiaircraft guns had fallen back to earth and onto their homes.
Whoever caused the explosion, the residents assigned blame to the United States, insisting that without a war, they would be safe. "Who else could be responsible except the Americans?" asked Mohsin Hattab, a 32-year-old uncle of Daif.
"This war is evil. It's an unjust war," said Imad Hussein, a driver and uncle of Hassan. "They have no right to make war against us. Until now, we were sitting in our homes, comfortable and safe."
As he spoke, the wails of mourners pouring forth from homes drowned out his words. He winced, turning his head to the side. Then he continued. "God will save us," he said softly.
At the mosque, hours after the blast, Kadhim and another caretaker prepared Daif's body for burial -- before sundown, as is Islamic custom.
Bathed in the soft colors of turquoise tiles, the room was hushed, as the caretakers finished the washing. They wrapped his head, his gaze fixed, with red and yellow plastic. They rolled the corpse in plastic sheeting, fastening it with four pieces of white gauze -- one at each end, one around his knees and one around his chest.
Kadhim worked delicately, his gestures an attempt to bring dignity to the corpse. He turned Daif's body to the side and wrapped it in a white sheet, secured with four more pieces of gauze. Under their breaths, men muttered prayers, breaking the suffocating silence that had descended. They then moved toward the concrete slab and hoisted the limp body into a wood coffin.
"It's very difficult," said Kadhim, as the men closed the coffin.
On Friday, he had gone to another mosque, Imam Moussa Kadhim, to help bury dozens killed when a blast ripped through a teeming market in the nearby neighborhood of Shuala. The memories haunted him. He remembered the severed hands and heads that arrived at the Shiite mosque. He recalled bodies, even that of an infant, with gaping holes.
"It was awful and ugly," he said. "This is the first time I've ever seen anything like this."
In an open-air courtyard, the men set the coffin down on the stone floor of a mosque still under construction. In two rows, they lined up behind it, their shoes removed before them. Their lips moved in prayers practiced thousands of times.
"God is greatest," they repeated, their palms facing upward in supplication.
In the background, men discussed the war. In the repression and isolation that reigns in Iraq, rumors often serve as news, and the talk today was of carnage unleashed on a convoy taking the body of an 80-year-old woman to be buried in the southern city of Najaf, where U.S. forces are confronting Iraqi irregulars and soldiers.
For Shiite Muslims, Najaf is among their most sacred cities, housing the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, whom Shiites regard as his rightful heir. Tradition has it that the dying Ali asked his followers to place his body on a camel and bury him wherever it first knelt; Najaf was the site. Millions of pilgrims visit each year, and devout Shiites will spend their life's savings for the blessings of being buried in the vast cemeteries that gird the city.
The woman from Rahmaniya never made it. Residents said U.S. forces attacked three cars, one carrying her body. It was another ignominy visited on the city, the men agreed. They insisted that infidels would never enter the city by force of arms. The U.S. siege of the city -- its severity accentuated as rumors circulated -- was an act of humiliation.
"It's a disgrace," said Hattab, one of Daif's uncles.
Hussein, another relative, echoed the words of others. "They didn't come to liberate Iraq," he said, "they came to occupy it."
In his words was a fear that strikes deep into the Iraqi psyche. Many worry that the U.S. invasion is a threat to their culture and traditions. They wonder if an occupation would obliterate what they hold dear, imposing an alien culture by force on a society that, in large part, remains deeply conservative and insulated.
"We don't want the Americans or British here. Our food is better than their food, our water is better than their water," he said.
With the prayers over, the men hoisted Daif's coffin over their heads. They left through the mosque's gray, steel gates and ventured into the desolate, dirt streets awash in trash. Some were barefoot and others wore sandals.
"There is no god but God," one man chanted. "There is no god but God," the pallbearers answered. Bombing on the horizon provided a refrain. The men crossed the street, past concrete and brick hovels, the Shiite flags of solid black, green, red and white flying overhead.
As they approached Daif's house, its door emblazoned with the names Muhammad and Ali, they were greeted with wails of women covered by black chadors. They screamed, waving their hands and shaking their heads. The cries drowned out the chants, as the coffin disappeared indoors. The despair poured out of the home, its windows shattered by the blast that killed Daif.
"My son! My son!" his mother, Zeineb Hussein, cried out. "Where are you now? I want to see your face!"
The men in Daif's family embraced each other, sobbing uncontrollably on their shoulders. Others cried into their hands. From within the house came the sounds of women methodically beating their chests in grief.
In the houses along the street, neighbors and relatives spoke of injustice -- a resonant theme in the lives of Shiites Muslims, whose saints and centuries of theology are infused with examples of suffering and martyrdom.
"We're poor. We can't go anywhere else. What is the fault of the families here? Where's the humanity?" asked Abu Ahmed, a 53-year-old neighbor sitting in a home with three pictures of Ali and a painting of his son, Hussein. "I swear to God, we're scared."
Their talk was angry, and they were baffled.
If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?
In Hussein's Iraq, with a 30-year-political culture built on brutality, some were convinced the Americans were intent on vengeance for the setbacks they believed their forces were delivered in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Others, in moments of striking candor, pleaded for the United States and Britain to wage war against their government, but spare the people.
"If they want to liberate people, they can kick out the government, not kill innocent civilians," one relative said. "The innocent civilians are not in business with the government. We're living in our houses."
Before dusk, Daif's coffin was carried from his house. It was set on the back of a white pickup truck headed for the cemetery. As it drove away, kicking up clouds of dirt, some of the neighbors and relatives shouted, "God be with you." Other men waved, a gesture so casual that it suggested the strength of their faith, that they would eventually be reunited with Daif.
Hattab, the uncle, looked on at the departing coffin. His eyes were red, and his face was drawn.
"He has returned to God," he said. "It's God's wish."