ZUBAYR, Iraq – A warehouse full of hundreds of bodies appears to have been a repatriation facility for soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, military investigators said Sunday.
Preliminary reports by a coalition special task force contradicted speculation that the site in southern Iraq was the scene of a major atrocity.
British troops discovered two tin sheds full of bodies and coffins Saturday on Zubayr's northern outskirts.
Some speculated that the site was a torture and execution ground and mass morgue, possibly for opponents of President Saddam Hussein's regime.
But forensics experts and criminal investigators said Sunday that injuries on corpses examined so far appear to be war-related.
"There is a canvass going on right now of the local population to see what they know about this facility," said Chief Warrant Officer Dan Walters, a senior criminal investigator for the coalition's 75th Exploitation Task Force.
The British artillery battery took up position behind the front line outside nearby Basra on Saturday, next to the run-down sheds in a desolate area near an oil refinery.
One of the warehouses contained a series of small, cell-like rooms partitioned by cinderblocks. In the other shed, empty coffins were neatly stacked five or six high. Some of the crude, wood coffins lay in a single row, with woven sacks and personal effects inside.
Investigators counted 408 sets of human remains and 664 caskets. Using documents at the site, investigators determined that about 85 percent of the corpses are Iraqi and the rest Iranian, Walters said.
No evidence discovered so far indicates that any of the victims were Kuwaitis captured during the Gulf War, he said.
Walters confirmed that a wall in the building was riddled with 23 bullet holes, but said there were no shell casings or similar evidence that would indicate the shed had been used for executions.
Piles of documents at the site appeared to be catalogs, dating from the mid-1980s, containing biographical information about the bodies, including their names, rank and what country they were from, Walters said.
In Tehran, Iran, Gen. Mirfeisal Baqerzadeh, head of an Iranian committee carrying out a search of its war missing, said earlier Sunday that Iranian soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war were among those found near Basra.
"We officially call on the International Committee of the Red Cross to carry out their responsibility and immediately take the bodies from the invading forces and hand them over to the Islamic Republic of Iran," he was by state-run Tehran radio as saying.
About 1 million soldiers were killed or wounded during the 1980-88 war. Iran and Iraq have exchange thousands of prisoners and dead soldiers' remains since then. Baqerzadeh said Iraq had delayed repatriating the remains of about 100 Iranian soldiers found in recent months near Basra, Zubayr and Faw.
The coalition's exploitation task force is searching for evidence of war crimes and Iraqi weapons of destruction. No proof of chemical or biological weapons has turned up yet, Walters said.
Col. Richard McPhee, the task force commander, said that no suspected weapons sites were under investigation by the seven teams of experts he commands. He indicated that one other potential site of human rights violations was being investigated, but gave no specifics.