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Hundreds Search for Loved Ones at Iraqi Mass Grave Site - 2003-05-14

Iraqi workers are extracting the bodies of thousands of victims of the Saddam Hussein regime buried in a killing field south of Baghdad.

Hundreds of people watch each scoop of the backhoe, looking for bones of the dead being dug out of the mass grave at the Mahawil killing field, about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.

The remains are arranged in small piles. Each pile contains a skull, some bones, clothing, and, sometimes, identification papers. Thousands of relatives of people missing under the Saddam Hussein regime have flocked to the site. They stoop to inspect the remains in hope of finding their loved ones.

U.S. Marines are on the scene to provide assistance to Iraqi relief workers conducting the exhumations. Captain David Romley explains what has been found so far.

"There are approximately 2,600 bodies that have been exhumed, and my understanding is, according to the medical official here, that there could be potentially anywhere between 10 and 14,000 people [buried here]," he said.

Captain Romley says documentation is being gathered for a criminal investigation.

"We are trying to find out for our purposes, we are photographing, we are videotaping, we are interviewing people to find out what the circumstances were about this site with the intent of providing that information to the Iraqi people and the judicial system," he explained.

Local residents say the people buried at Mahawil were victims of Saddam Hussein's crackdown on dissent after the 1991 Gulf War, when he crushed an uprising by the majority Shi'ite community.

Many say they are still angry that the United States encouraged the rebellion, but did not protect the Shi'ites.

Several men interviewed say a local landowner organized the killings and, in return, received a car, a pistol, and cash from Saddam Hussein. They believe the man is in U.S. custody, but that has not been confirmed. They say he should be executed.

An investigator from Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, is trying to document the atrocity, but he says valuable evidence is being destroyed by the heavy machinery.

"Unfortunately the rapid way that this grave is being dug up makes it very difficult to determine exactly how these people were killed," he said. "It is going to make it a lot more difficult to prosecute the people responsible for this tremendous atrocity in the future, the way this evidence is being destroyed."

Mr. Bouckaert says he understands the desire of the relatives to quickly search for their loved ones, but he says the U.S.-led coalition forces should bring in experts to properly exhume the victims and record information about the site, as was done in Kosovo.

"Here we do not see a similar effort by the U.S. coalition forces. As far as I know there is not a single forensic expert brought in by the U.S. coalition forces so far, and that is a massive failure," he said.

Captain Romley says the situation is delicate, and the Marines do not want to interfere with what should be an Iraqi-run operation.

"We will do whatever it takes to facilitate the proper reclamation of the victims," he stressed. "Keep in mind that we see this as an Iraqi process because we think that is appropriate. We want to respect the wishes of the Iraqi victims and their families."

Among the relatives at the site is Nahada Jabaar Abed Muain. She has come to seek her brothers, who disappeared 12 years ago.

"What can I say," she cried. "They took my two brothers, though they had done nothing wrong. They just went to bring us water from a stream. But Haider and Ali never came back."

Across the way, relief workers read out the names of victims they have been able to identify so far. And the backhoe keeps digging at the site, which is the size of three football fields. But the human rights experts say most of the bodies will remain nameless and their relatives may never know their fate.