After 23 years of waiting and wondering, they finally laid to rest the Ayatollah Sayed Mohammad Sadiq Al-Qazwini.
Like countless other Iraqis, the ayatollah had abruptly vanished into the jails of Saddam Hussein with no explanation. At age 80, he was taken at gunpoint from his home in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala.
His family, most of whom had fled to Southern California, never heard from him again. Nor have they heard from 15 other relatives who disappeared in the last three decades. After the fall of Hussein’s regime, they received the dreaded confirmation of their patriarch’s death. Former fellow inmates reported he had died in prison.
On Thursday night, the family memorialized Al-Qazwini in a ritual of Koranic readings and prayers at the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. More than 200 people, many of them women wearing black hijabs, or headscarves, attended.
It was one of six memorial services, including three in Southern California, held Thursday around the world for the ayatollah.
“He wasn’t an agitator, but he was a man of principle,” said Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, founder of the Islamic Education Center and the 41-year-old grandson of the ayatollah. “In no way could he support the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.”
Another grandson, Jafar Al-Qazwini, eulogized the religious leader, and shed tears as he detailed the frail 80-year-old’s brutal capture and the recent discovery of mass graves, including one in the ayatollah’s hometown. The grandson said he couldn’t help but wonder about the remains it contained. “Could [my grandfather] be one of them?”
Such memorial services are increasing among Iraqi exiles here as Hussein’s execution lists -- and mass graves -- are finally being uncovered.
Though the memorial services are helping families bring closure to their years of suffering, they also are casting a shroud of sadness over a community that, just weeks ago, was jubilant over the downfall of the Iraqi dictator.
“There was a period where we were all so happy about the liberation of our country,” said Sam Ali, an Irvine engineer. “Now we are in a period of sadness, with the discovery of all of these mass graves and all of the relatives who were detained and killed.”
Ali mourns his cousin Safaa Hariri, who was recently memorialized here and abroad. Hariri was not particularly religious nor interested in politics, Ali said. But he was taken in the early 1980s after the Iraqi government deported thousands of Shiite Muslims to Iran, including much of Ali’s family.
The regime feared that the Shiites might foment an uprising similar to Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While older men and women were deported, young men were often held back and arrested because Hussein feared they would eventually return to fight him, Ali said.
The last time Ali saw his cousin, he was boisterously celebrating his recent marriage with friends at a restaurant along the Tigris River.
After the deportations, the cousin’s new bride waited 20 years for her husband to return -- until the family found his name on an execution list a few days ago.
Basam Ridha Al-Hussaini, a 40-year-old San Dimas engineer, plans to lead memorial services Saturday for his two brothers and more than 50 other victims at a special service at the Alzhra Mosque in Southgate.
Al-Hussaini said he was 15 when Iraqi security officers kicked down the doors of his Baghdad home in May 1980 and arrested his brother Bashir, then 21, because he would not join Hussein’s Baath Party. Five months later, they took his second brother, Kazim, then 23.
After Baghdad fell, Al-Hussaini said, his mother waited at her door around the clock, wanting to be the first to greet her sons after their release. But they never came.
A few weeks later, Al-Hussaini’s sister in Baghdad found a document that confirmed both brothers were executed in the early 1980s. She slowly broke the news to her mother, convincing her to end her doorside vigil.
At the Ahlul-Beyt Mosque in Pomona, director Ridha Hajjar has comforted countless families in recent weeks -- including relatives racked by guilt for leaving loved ones behind in Iraqi prisons while they enjoyed the comforts of America.
In one recent case, Hajjar said, his mosque sponsored a memorial service for a family patriarch who was arrested after a 1991 uprising against Hussein in Karbala.
Hajjar said the man, a mosque custodian, was merely handing out water to the crowd when he was taken. For several years, his children traveled to Iraq to seek his release, handing over as much as $10,000 to Iraqi officials who promised them a chance to speak to their father, Hajjar said. The promises turned out to be empty.
When the man did not turn up after Baghdad fell, the family resigned themselves to his death and held the memorial service.
In Costa Mesa, Moustafa Al-Qazwini said his father, an ayatollah who returned to Iraq after the war, called Thursday from Karbala to tell him about the memorial service there for his grandfather and others killed during the Hussein regime.
“My father said ... the entire city wore black.”