As many as 300,000 Iraqis killed during Saddam Hussein's 23-year dictatorship are believed to be buried in more than 250 mass graves found so far around the country, the top human rights official in the U.S.-led civilian administration said Saturday.
Sandy Hodgkinson (search) spoke at workshop to train dozens of Iraqis to find and protect mass grave sites that many fear could be destroyed by desperate relatives trying to dig for evidence of their missing loved ones.
Mass graves have been found throughout the country since the U.S.-led coalition deposed the dictator in April.
Mass graves "tell the story of missing loved ones such as where, when and how they were killed," Hodgkinson said. "Truth and proper burial is the first step toward reconciliation."
The process of recovering and identifying the bodies, however, could take years.
Hodgkinson said the majority of people buried in mass graves were Kurds murdered by Saddam in the 1980s after rebelling against the government and Shiites (search) killed after their 1991 uprising.
Iraqi Human Rights Minister Abdul-Basit Turki (search) said that uncovering mass graves is important "first to identify the missing in addition to using them as criminal evidence against the former regime."
Hodgkinson said that more than $100 million was requested during a donor conference held last month for uncovering mass graves. That money would be used over five years and the donations were expected in equipment and trained personnel and not cash.
Hania Mufti, London director of Human Rights Watch (search), said there was optimism that international forensic teams would come to begin investigations before winter but their arrival was delayed because of violence.
"A Danish team was supposed to come at the end of August but because of deteriorating security, including the Aug. 19 bombing of (U.N. headquarters at) Qanal Hotel delayed indefinitely," she said. "A Finnish team was also supposed to come but didn't."
Near the southern town of Mahaweel (search), one of the biggest mass graves was found in May including the remains of 3,115 bodies, most of them shot in the head.