MAHAWEEL, Iraq (AP) — The tattered green identity card flapped in the wind, the picture faded and only the number, 764059, visible. Around it was chaos: mounds of earth, barbed wire fences, bulldozers and hundreds of anguished onlookers hoping for answers.
Body after body, villagers are exhuming the remains of neighbors and loved ones killed after a 1991 Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein. After nine days of digging, locals said Wednesday about 3,000 sets of remains had been uncovered, including some of people who had apparently been buried alive.
The mass grave in Mahaweel, 60 miles south of Baghdad, is the largest found in Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam's Baath Party government last month. Rights groups expect hundreds more to be found in coming months.
"The joy of Saddam Hussein's downfall is over. Now we are thinking about our relatives and the crimes that were committed upon them," said Rafed Husseini, a doctor leading the group of men doing the digging.
Across Iraq, in fields and on hillocks, families are gathering to excavate sites they couldn't even approach while Saddam was in power. They pick through the bones for a thread of familiar clothing, an identification card, any clue to their identity.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said a secret cemetery containing numbered graves of more than 1,000 prisoners executed by Saddam's government had been found 25 miles north of Baghdad, in the village of Muhammad Sakran.
Two days earlier, Iraqis pulled bodies from a newly found mass grave near Basra, the country's second-largest city. That site in southern Iraq was believed to contain remains of about 150 Shiite Muslims killed by Saddam's regime after a rebellion in 1999.
But nowhere has the ground disgorged such mass heartbreak as it has in Mahaweel.
Consider Fadhel al-Buzayri. A 21-year-old soldier in the Iraqi army, he was picked up by military security as he stood outside his home in the nearby village of Mat'hiya on the night of April 28, 1991. In the kitchen, his mother was making tea.
"They didn't even let him come inside to say goodbye to us," said the mother, Samira al-Shumari. "We thought they took him to his unit."
Five days later, his father, Salman al-Buzayri, went looking for him at his unit northeast of Baghdad. The son was not there, nor was he in prison.
When the young man was not among thousands of prisoners freed in a general amnesty late last year, al-Buzayri's last dim hope was gone. He knew his son was dead.
On Wednesday, a volunteer read out the names of the remains identified so far. Fadhel al-Buzayri was not among them. "We will wait for them to dig more bodies," his father said. "There are many graves in Iraq."
Then his wife began calling out their son's name, and he started crying quietly.
"Our tears are cheap, O Saddam," moaned Um Khaled, sitting nearby and looking for her son.
Hundreds of people watched from behind barbed-wire barriers as remains were pulled from the field, and wrapped in plastic bags and muddy sheets. Some had tufts of long hair attached — probably women, officials said.
Many of the onlookers were weeping, and some chanted: "There is no God but Allah, and the Baath (Party) is the enemy of Allah" — a play on the traditional Islamic profession of faith, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." Several women held pictures of missing loved ones. Men and women sifted through the plastic bags, searching for clues.
"We can tell from their clothes," one man said.
About half the bodies remain unidentified. The rest have been identified mainly through documents found with the remains, Husseini said.
"About 20 percent were buried alive, because they had no bullet wounds, but their hands were tied and they were blindfolded," said Amer al-Shumari, who works for the governor's office in Hillah.
U.S. Marines, who arrived Wednesday to secure the site, provided water to the grieving families.
"We can take this evidence and present it to a future Iraqi judiciary," said Capt. David Romley of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "They want to excavate the site themselves."
But Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch criticized the American-led administration for not sending forensic experts to Hillah. He said using bulldozers to exhume remains would destroy evidence and make it difficult to bring perpetrators to justice.
"It's an absolutely shameful failure on the part of the U.S. government," Bouckaert said Wednesday at the scene.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defended the U.S. response, noting that the military was trying to contain looting and other lawlessness in Baghdad.
"We're finding mass graves, thousands of human beings that were killed by that government," he said Wednesday. "What should we do? Would you rather have a policeman here or someone down there guarding those graves?"
Bouckaert said at least 200,000 people disappeared in Iraq in the past two decades, and human rights groups are tracking suspected locations of many other mass grave sites across the country.
Sukna al-Jbouri, who stood beside the barbed wire, said she had come in search of her son Hilal, who was 19 when he was arrested by soldiers in 1991.
"I was walking with my son in the street, and the army came and picked him up," she said as she wept. "I tried to stop them but they took him. … What could I do?"
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.