The Washington Post
HILLAH, Iraq - Iraqis began breaking years of frightened silence over the location of mass graves Sunday, directing U.S. troops and neighbors with relatives who vanished under Saddam Hussein to two dusty pits holding scores of human remains.
Near the city of Najaf and in this farming town 60 miles south of Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqis frantic for information about relatives missing for more than a decade began excavating graves known only to a few townspeople until now. Digging gingerly with spades and hands, they began pulling from the dry ground skulls stained brown after years in the earth, bits of clothing, and sets of false teeth.
More than 80 sets of remains were pulled from the two sites, including those of women and children, and the number was climbing as darkness came. International human rights workers, who say Saddam left scores of mass graves during 24 years in power, worried that the amateur search would only destroy forensic evidence essential to identifying victims and recording the regime's crimes.
At a sun-scorched plot near a mosque on the edge of this city, Mohammed Abed arrived with a shovel at midday to begin searching for the remains of three brothers he has not seen since the town's large Shiite population rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The uprising was encouraged by the U.S. government, which promised support that never materialized.
Like many here, Abed heard of the grave only the day before after a Hillah man guided the region's governor and U.S. troops to a mound he had known for more than a decade held the body of his son. Picking away at a small hill, Abed bent occasionally to remove chunks of bone from the ground. But he could not identify what he was finding .
"I'm hoping I might recognize some clothes because what else can I do, really?" said Abed. Dust colored his dark hair gray. "Otherwise, all I'm seeing is a pile of bones."
The discoveries come as Iraqis pore over government archives, military bases and grave sites seeking to learn the fate of thousands of people who disappeared into Saddam's state security apparatus. Already Iraqis have dug up large graveyards holding scores of the regime's victims, identified only by numbered grave markers, and Kurdish groups have unearthed at least one mass grave near the northern city of Kirkuk.
The graves that emerged Sunday are among the first of what will likely be hundreds, according to human rights groups who have arrived in Iraq since Saddam's regime collapsed April 9. New York-based Human Rights Watch has estimated 200,000 Iraqis disappeared during Saddam's rule, with many of them likely ending up in secret graves.
Like the millions of Iraqi security files surfacing haphazardly across Baghdad, however, the mass graves pose a challenge to human rights investigators hoping to keep a careful record of the discoveries. Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was understandable that Iraqis were exhuming graves on their own after decades without word of missing relatives.
Bouckaert said they would probably continue to search until they receive assurances that professional investigators intend to exhume the bodies, chart the findings and identify victims to the greatest extent possible. The organization has called on U.S. forces to protect the graves while forensic teams are organized for an investigation that may dwarf those that followed the recent wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He said the group knows of many far larger mass graves "all over Iraq," but is waiting until forensic investigators are in place before announcing them.
"Otherwise this digging will only damage the evidence," Bouckaert said. In many Iraqi towns, especially ones populated by the country's majority Shiites who were oppressed by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, only a few fearful townspeople appear to have been aware of the regime's burial pits.
In Hillah, a town of 50,000 people set among palm groves near the ancient city of Babylon, the grave across from the green dome of Al-Bakr Mosque was Jabbar Kareem's secret.
Hillah's large Shiite population rose up for two weeks in March 1991 as part of a national uprising. Demonstrators clashed with government security forces in the streets, killing many before the military brought the town to heel on March 17.
Far more vanished over the ensuing weeks as Saddam's security services moved house to house searching for protesters and hauling those they found to the nearby Mahaweel prison. Most never returned. Hillah residents say Hussein Kamil, the president's bodyguard and son-in-law, supervised much of the post-uprising imprisonments and executions.
Five of Kareem's eight sons were killed or disappeared during those weeks, including 21-year-old Mohie, who was shot dead during the demonstrations. The military took Mohie's body to the morgue where it was kept along with dozens of others for two months.
During that time, Kareem, a devout Muslim, searched for Mohie's body to give him a proper funeral. By this time, security agents had hauled off four other sons and thrown the whole family in jail for five days. The sons have never returned.
Kareem bribed a military official, who told him about the grave near the Al-Bakr Mosque. He went that night, carrying a shovel, but was arrested by security agents who did not believe his explanation that he was heading to the mosque. He spent five months in jail, and was forced to sign a pledge not to return to the grave.
Other townspeople were suspicious of the site, a dirt plain bordered by a swampy canal and a distant palm grove. A guard there would tell passers-by it was a "heritage site."
"Sometimes there would be a man who pretended to be crazy, just standing by the place," said Abed Ali, a 37-year-old driver visiting the swarming site Sunday. "But we knew he was a security agent."
Kareem, whose house was watched by the government for many of those years, found ways to visit the grave .
"Every month I went to check it," said Kareem, who informed the Hillah governor and U.S. troops about the grave Saturday. "I was sure," he said, he would find Mohie there.
Sunday he took away Mohie's remains , wrapped in the green and white striped blanket that the military official told him to look for years ago. A three-day funeral commemoration has been planned.
But many others have had less luck. Clothes have become sticky brown clumps, rendering them nearly useless for identification . The scene Sunday was a swirl of weeping women in billowing black robes and men digging, all careful to avoid trampling two neat rows of bone piles in a pit that grew throughout the day.
A tiny green dress rested on bones the size of twigs, set on a brown cloth. Next to it sat a larger pile that belonged to the child's mother. An infant's bones rested on the next cloth. An intact set of false teeth sat atop one pile, gathering dust in the warm breeze.
Many of the skulls had been sawed open, most likely during autopsies. Small clumps of hair and faded plastic identification bracelets sat inside each of them. A series of mounds beyond the first dig site may hold more victims.
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