Iraqi members of the Civil Defense cover the bones from an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawah, Iraq, April 14, 2019.
FILE - Iraqi members of the Civil Defense cover the bones from an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawah, Iraq, April 14, 2019.

GARMYAN/WASHINGTON - Four mass graves with dozens of bodies believed to be Kurds killed by the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces were found in the desert of al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq.

Early exhumation of the mass graves about 80 kilometers southwest of al-Samawah city has found bodies of 70 people, said Jabar Omar, the chief of Kurdistan Region’s Office of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs in Garmyan, who also oversees the unearthing process.

The people, consisting mostly of women and children, are believed to have been killed between 1987-1988, during the Iraqi former regime’s “Anfal campaign” against the Kurds.

“The victims are buried on the top of each other and they are mostly women and children,” Omar said. “Separating the bodies is difficult because many of them are infants, between 1 and 2 years of age, buried between their mothers’ arms.”

Anfal campaign

The Anfal campaign was unleashed against the Kurds in the late 1980s by Hussein’s forces and led by his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid. The campaign reportedly left 180,000 Kurds dead or missing, and about 4,500 villages were destroyed.

Kurdish officials say the whereabouts of thousands who went missing in the campaign remain unclear, with their families still trying to find out if they are alive or buried in Iraq’s southern deserts.

Iraqi members of the Civil Defense and Kurdish men examine an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawah, Iraq, April 14, 2019.
FILE - Iraqi members of the Civil Defense and Kurdish men examine an unearthed mass grave of Kurds in west of the city of Samawah, Iraq, April 14, 2019.

The team tasked with identifying the bodies found in al-Muthanna is still uncovering one mass grave, Omar said, adding the number of bodies is expected to rise in the following days as the excavation of three other graves begins.

Once the remains are collected, a team of legal and forensics officials will transport the bodies to Baghdad for further testing, he said.

“Decaying clothing recovered from the mass grave show the victims are most likely from Garmyan district,” he added.

Several mass graves

Since the overthrow of Hussein’s regime in 2003, Iraqi authorities have discovered several mass graves containing bodies of executed Kurds.

Last April, Iraq President Barham Salih attended the unearthing of another Kurdish mass grave in the western desert of al-Samawah.

“The new Iraq must never forget these crimes that were committed against Iraqi people from all groups,” he said at the time, during a press conference at the gravesite.

Rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, say the Anfal campaign was a systematic ethnic cleansing program amounting to genocide. Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and South Korea officially recognize the campaign as genocide.

An Iraqi court in 2007 convicted and sentenced al-Majid to death for his leading role in the campaign.