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After delay, Queens soldier laid to rest with Muslim rites

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Hundreds of mourners gathered to pray inside the Jamaica Muslim Center for Spc. Azhar Ali, 27, one of two Queens troops killed March 2 on a scout mission in Baghdad. His good friend, Spc. Wai Lwin, 27, of Douglaston, also died in the blast.The service followed a wake for Ali in Woodhaven and preceded his burial on Long Island."Lwin and Ali were like brothers. They were inseparable," recalled Sgt. Adrian Melendez, who served with the men in New York's famous Army National Guard Unit, "The Fighting" 69th Infantry. The sergeant talked with reporters outside the service on 168th Street.The unit has lost six troops in the Iraq war. Melendez was close to three of them. His Humvee was leveled by a roadside bomb Dec. 3 in an attack that killed Staff Sgt. Henry Irizarry of the Bronx. "I never heard the actual explosion," Melendez said. "I'm one of the lucky guys."When he regained consciousness the next day, his comrades told him that Ali, who joined the military in 1998 and graduated from John Bowne High School in Flushing, stood over his vehicle with his weapon drawn."He was there. He was on the scene. My vehicle was disabled," Melendez said. "He set up security so my vehicle wouldn't get attacked anymore."Lwin and Ali were killed in a similar explosion three months later.The men lived parallel lives. They immigrated to the United States as children - Lwin from Myanmar and Ali from Pakistan - and both loved the Army, their families said."He always wanted to join the Army," 33-year-old Zulfiqar Ali, Azhar's older brother, said.While Lwin was buried March 19 after a Buddhist ceremony in Bayside, Ali's funeral was delayed nearly two weeks because of complications with the military. Under Muslim law, the deceased are to be buried within 24 hours of death. Ali's family said the Army took more than a day to notify them of his death. The family changed its original plan of burying him in Pakistan after the media in that country caught wind of the supposed mishap.City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) and U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) interceded, helping four of Ali's siblings from Pakistan get visas and passports to enter the country.Four of Ali's brothers and his father Mubarek Ali, 60, joined a row of mourners who prayed beside his casket during the ceremony in the courtyard behind the Jamaica mosque."Allahu Akbar (Allah is great)," they murmured in unison as the mosque's imam recited a prayer over the casket, which was draped in a gold and black fabric called a "kalema shadal.""Azhar Ali represents the best of America," City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) said after the service. "His family is very proud of his fine military record and his service to his adopted country. They never imagined that their son would be the first Muslim-American to die in this war."Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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