Published May 15, 2003
MAHAWEEL, Iraq – American soldiers were helping villagers pull thousands of bodies out of a mass grave (search) in central Iraq on Wednesday. About 3,000 corpses have been exhumed so far, and U.S. military officials say the total could reach 11,000.
Many of the victims are believed to have been murdered during the 1991 Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein's (search) regime.
"About 20 percent of them were buried alive, because they had no bullet wounds, but their hands were tied and they were blindfolded," said Amer Shumri, an official from the governor's office in Hillah.
Fox News learned that 719 bodies -- including women and children -- were identified through documents found on or near the bodies.
The mass grave in this village outside Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, is the largest found in Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam and his Baath Party (search) government last month. It's believed there may be dozens more sites like it in Iraq.
Hundreds of people from nearby towns and villages watched from behind a barbed-wire barrier as sets of remains were pulled from the field and set aside wrapped in plastic bags, sheets and blankets. Some of the skulls still had tufts of long hair, and officials said they probably were women.
People searched desperately for anything that could help identify the dead. Faded identity cards, certain dental structures, wallets, eyeglasses and broken bones were among the clues people looked for to try to identify family members who were among the 200,000 people who disappeared in Iraq during the past decade.
Bushra Jabbar, 43, was overcome by grief when the bodies of her mother and two sisters were dug up. She threw the dirt from the graves over her own head, as if to bury herself with it, Reuters reported.
"Here they are. These are the bodies of my mother and my two sisters," said Jabbar, sitting in the dirt and wailing as workers dug up her loved ones' remains. She said she recognized her mother from her long braided hair and her golden jewelry.
Many of the onlookers were weeping, and some chanted: "There is no God but God, and the Baath (Party) is the enemy of God." Several women were holding pictures of their missing men.
One woman wailed and wept while holding up an old picture of a loved one she was searching for, waving her arm toward the tattered clothes still on the bones of victims at her feet.
Rafed Husseini, a doctor leading the group of local men doing the digging, said 3,000 bodies had either been retrieved or located in the past nine days. About half had been identified mainly through documents found on the bodies, he said.
He estimated that between 10,000 to 15,000 Iraqis had been reported missing in a large region south of Baghdad.
He said local farmers who had witnessed some of the killings by Saddam's forces had alerted them of the mass graves. "They saw the crimes taking place but did not dare talk about them at the time," Husseini said.
Villagers from Mahaweel began the dig by bringing in a bulldozer to open up the site.
"We are organizing it and we are digging," said Abuzaid Dinar, the village headman. He said his dead father and brother were buried somewhere in the area, where several separate mass graves were spread out over about a half-mile-square area.
Some Iraqis told Fox News reporters on the scene that they wanted to say "thank you" to U.S. and coalition forces for getting rid of Saddam -- "the worst man that ever lived on this earth."
Wednesday's excavation came two days after Iraqis pulled bodies from another recently discovered mass grave near the southern city of Basra. That site was believed to contain remains of up to 150 Shiite Muslims killed by Saddam's regime after a rebellion in 1999.
Human rights groups believe Iraq is dotted with mass graves.
Shiites rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War but were crushed by the Iraqi leader and his police and military apparatus. Thousands of Shiites were killed.
Many Shiites had expected more U.S. help in their revolt. Some have expressed bitterness, saying the United States under former President Bush had not intervened to save them from Saddam's wrath. Some say this has led to their reluctance to rise up more than they did during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Sukna al-Jbouri, who stood beside the barbed wire, said she had come to find her son Hilal, who was 19 when he was arrested in 1991.
"I was walking with my son in the street and the army came and picked him up," she said. "I tried to stop them but they took him, I don't know why."
U.S. Marines were securing the site and brought water and camouflage netting to protect onlookers from the blistering sun.
"We are to help facilitate the reunion of victims and families," said Capt. David Romley from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, who added that his unit had only heard about the site two days earlier. "They want to excavate the site themselves."
"We can take this evidence and present it to a future Iraqi judiciary," he said.
But Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, criticized the U.S.-led administration in Iraq, saying forensic experts should have been sent to Hillah and local people should be the ones to excavate the graves.
"The way they're doing it is, they are destroying evidence," Bouckaert said. "It's an absolutely shameful failure on the part of the U.S. government."
He said at least 200,000 people had disappeared in Iraq during the past decade, and that human rights groups knew the locations of many other mass grave sites throughout the country.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday:
-- A military vehicle overturned in northern Iraq, killing one U.S. soldier with the 101st Airborne Division and injuring another, officers and witnesses at the scene said.
-- The New York Times reported that the new U.S. administration for Iraq will now let U.S. forces shoot looters on sight to discourage the rampant lawlessness that has persisted for weeks.
-- The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research used coalition-run radio to call on people to return equipment that was looted from universities in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
Fox News' Greg Palkot and The Associated Press contributed to this report.