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Coalition, Iraqis Exhume Mass Graves in Search for Justice

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

MAHAWIL, Iraq, Sept. 6, 2003 – All that remains is a field filled with plastic bags of clothing and other personal effects.

The field was the site of a mass grave of Shiia Muslims killed following the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991. When U.S. Marines arrived in the area in April, the local people went to the field and exhumed what was left of their loved ones murdered by the former regime.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited the site during this trip to Iraq. He said he had read reports of the mass graves, but reading about them is "one- dimensional." Being there allowed the tragedy to become "three-dimensional" to him, he said.

Officials said the 3,000-plus bodies the mass grave contained are just the tip of the iceberg. In the Mahawil area alone, officials estimate that 15,000 Iraqis probably are buried. In all of Iraq, some officials estimate Saddam killed more than 350,000 Iraqis since he took power in 1979. Other estimates put the number at 500,000, and still others at 1.3 million.

The effort to locate and document the remains of those murdered by the regime is important, said Sandy Hodgkinson, an adviser to the newly appointed Iraqi minister of human rights, because it gives families closure and is necessary so those guilty of the murders can face justice.

"We have received reports of more than 150 mass grave sites," Hodgkinson said. "We have received, though, generic reports from Iraqis around the country that there could be as many as 500 mass grave sites around the country."

The effort will take years, Hodgkinson said.

Some of the graves are old. Investigators are searching for graves from when Saddam murdered 8,000 members of the Barzani tribe early in his regime.

"In 1988, in a nine-month period of time, as many as 182,000 Kurds went missing," Hodgkinson said.

Large numbers of villagers were rounded up and told to leave their homes. "They would separate the men from the women and children," she explained, and the families would carry what they could. In finding graves, investigators are finding remains with "keyhole" entry wounds in the skulls. "This means they were shot from above," she said, adding that thousands were found in mass graves with all their clothes and housewares.

Hodgkinson said the United States had long been tracking Saddam's murders, but the reality is even more hideous. A large Iraqi and international effort to exhume the bodies and to make a case against the murderers will be conducted. Though officials have made some arrests, the coalition is not ready yet to file charges in connection with most of the murders, Hodgkinson said.

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