Forensic Teams to Probe Iraqi Mass Graves

The killers kept bankers' hours.

They showed up for work at the barley field at 9 a.m., trailed by backhoes and three buses filled with blindfolded men, women and children as young as 1.

Every day, witnesses say, the routine was the same: The backhoes dug a trench. Fifty people were led to the edge of the hole and shot, one by one, in the head. The backhoes covered them with dirt.

Sometimes the gunmen couldn't keep up and people were simply pushed into the pit to be buried alive. Then the backhoes dug another hole and the next group was led to their deaths.

At 5 p.m., the killers — officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (search) — went home to rest up for another day of slaughter.

In this wind-swept field in the central town of Mahaweel, witnesses say, this went on without a break for 35 days in March and April of 1991, during a crackdown on a Shiite Muslim uprising (search) that followed the first Gulf War.

"I watched this with my own eyes," said Sayed Abbas Muhsen, 35, whose family farm was appropriated by Saddam's government for use as a killing field. "But we couldn't tell anyone. We didn't dare."

The mass grave at Mahaweel (search), with more than 3,100 sets of remains, is the largest of some 270 such sites across Iraq. They hold upward of 300,000 bodies; some Iraqi political parties estimate there are more than 1 million.

There are Kurdish men killed when Saddam became suspicious of their affiliations in the 1980s. Shiite women slain after their communities heeded U.S. calls to rise up against Saddam in 1991. Political prisoners released throughout Saddam's rule from fetid cells into unmarked graves.

Some of the graves hold thousands of bodies. Some hold only a few. Some are clearly marked, their inhabitants recorded coldly in the files of Iraq's former secret police. Some are just covered-over trenches in the remote desert, their records — if they ever existed — forever lost.

"It's as easy to find mass graves in Iraq as it once was to find oil," said Adnan Jabbar al-Saadi, a lawyer with Iraq's new Human Rights Ministry (search). He added with sarcasm, "Saddam Hussein was very just: He distributed mass graveyards all over the country."

In the days following Saddam's fall on April 9, family members who had kept a bitter silence for years rushed to grave sites, digging for ID cards and clothing that confirmed their worst fears: The bones in the ground belonged to a son, a wife, a grandfather.

The U.S.-led occupation authority desperately tried to halt the digging, telling people that if they waited, forensic teams would unearth the remains and use the evidence to punish those responsible.

Now, an Associated Press investigation has discovered, forensic teams will begin digging in January to preserve the first physical evidence at four grave sites, their desert locations classified as secret to prevent relatives from disturbing them first.

Iraqis, impatient with the pace, hope that Saddam's crimes will finally be punished.


In a tiny back room of the deposed Iraqi president's sprawling brick-and-marble Republican Palace in Baghdad, a group of eight American and British experts is using the latest technology to reach out to the dead.

Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Burch, wearing desert camouflage, uses computers to analyze decade-old satellite images in wavelengths invisible to the human eye, searching for evidence of pits in the desert.

Geoscientist Bruce Gerrick, who lights up when asked to explain scientific intricacies, looks for gypsum precipitation that could indicate soil disturbances.

Barrie Simpson, a jovial archaeologist, pores over maps in search of grave sites much as his colleagues at England's Birmingham University hunt for evidence of Roman ruins.

They work from a growing database of 270 suspected grave sites, matching witness accounts with geological evidence, preparing for field trips by four-wheel-drive vehicle and helicopter to confirm their high-tech data with the most low-tech of methods: a shovel.

"This is not a case of `X marks the spot,"' Simpson said. "It's not like driving down Route 66 with signposts that say, `Stop here."'

Gypsum (search) is one key tool. The Iraqi desert has a hard crust called the Caliche layer a foot below the surface. When a hole is dug, it breaks that crust, and minerals mix in the soil and combine to form gypsum, a kind of salt. The glistening white crystals leave a footprint only millimeters beneath the desert surface, visible decades later from a satellite or from the ground.

Imagery in six spectral bands comes from a commercial satellite in orbit since 1983, which can take images of any spot on Earth every 16 days. The classified computers — which Burch switches off before a reporter enters the room — hold two decades of imagery.

If witnesses report a mass grave dug at a desert location, say, in March 1991, Burch can analyze data from images taken in February 1991 and June 1991 and determine whether a pit was dug in that area during that time period.

"We don't care what it looks like," Gerrick said. "When our pixels come back and say it's gypsum, that's it."

After seven months of work, the team has confirmed 41 mass graves across the length and breadth of Iraq — a country the size of France — some near major cities, others miles from the nearest road.

They have a long way to go.


Nablus Hamid Ode last saw her husband on March 9, 1991.

It was a difficult time. Encouraged by statements from the administration of President George H.W. Bush, which had just defeated Saddam's army, millions of Shiite Muslims had risen up across southern and central Iraq in an effort to oust the dictator.

When the Americans didn't step in to help, Saddam counterattacked, and his Baath party rounded up hundreds of thousands of people from the communities that had taken up arms.

Ali Mohammed Jawad Abdul Hussein, a 21-year-old engineer who preferred mathematics textbooks and pickup soccer games to politics, hadn't participated in the fighting. He had just started his obligatory military service, and watched "the events of 1991" from boot camp in his hometown of Hillah.

That March 9, a Saturday, was his day off. He visited his wife, his 1-year-old daughter and his 3-month-old son at their home in Mahaweel, then returned to Hillah to check on his parents. He never reached the house.

His family asked about his whereabouts, but Baath party officials weren't forthcoming. The best the family could tell, he had been arrested, and was languishing in a prison somewhere. Lots of young men had been picked up, and military service hadn't saved them either.

Ode raised the children, now 12 and 13, and hoped that one day her husband — who still beams in white tie from his wedding picture on the wall — would walk through the door.

"Last year when Saddam Hussein declared a prisoners' amnesty, we thought he'd be released," she said. "We waited, but he didn't show up."

It wasn't until April, after U.S. troops tore through Mahaweel and into Baghdad 45 miles to the north, that Ode heard about the mass grave only a few miles down the road. Her brother Atlas joined townspeople who swarmed onto the site to dig.

"I put bones in bags. Most of the dead had no identification, so people tried to recognize clothes," he said. "I found his blue jacket and cream-colored sweater. But there were so many bones mixed together that I didn't know which were his."

The family asked a cleric what they should do. He said if they couldn't determine which bones were Hussein's, they should leave them where they were found.

Beneath the rows of mounds in Muhsen's barley field, they are still there.


Excavating a grave site under international standards is slow, time-consuming work. To pull 100 sets of remains from the ground, it usually takes six to eight weeks. Depending on the soil, it can take months.

After nine years of work in Bosnia, where 30,000 people are believed to have been buried in mass graves during the 1992-95 war, forensic scientists have identified about 8,000 sets of remains.

Iraq's case is different. Nobody expects scientists to dig up and identify 300,000 sets of remains. So as the scientists analyze the desert, experts are trying to identify which graves could help prosecutors build a case against those responsible for their creation.

"We're trying to make sure that there is at least one grave, and hopefully two or three, for each major period of atrocity," said Sandra Hodgkinson, director of the occupation authority's human rights office. That would mean eight to 24 mass graves selected for full exhumation.

Those grave sites must meet strict requirements. They must be in good condition, undisturbed by frantic relatives. Hodgkinson's office requires that residents of the villages around the graves consent to the digging. And from their resting places, the remains must show evidence that will stand up in court, like skulls with bullet holes.

Of the 41 mass grave sites confirmed by the coalition team, only four meet those criteria so far, several members of the scientific team told AP. All are in the remote desert, none closer than 10 miles from the nearest road.

But that's enough to start. As forensic experts excavate those graves, the team will continue its analysis. By the time a team finishes with one mass grave, another will be waiting for it to begin on.

The forensic teams were supposed to have been in place months ago, but as most aid groups pulled out of Iraq for fear of the safety of their workers, several teams canceled or delayed their trips. Some groups also delayed out of concern that until a tribunal is in place, they wouldn't know for whom they were collecting evidence.

But Hodgkinson said those fears have been overcome, and several forensic teams are ready to begin work in late January.

The locations of the first four graves selected remain classified. Experts fear that if people know where they are, family members — or even the killers — might try to dig them up.

"You will never be able to put this country completely back together in terms of mass graves and atrocities," Hodgkinson said. "We're racing against the clock and an expectation that's almost impossible to fulfill."


While foreign teams dig for evidence, Iraqis will dig for relatives.

Officials have appealed to family members to wait for a legal process to begin, so they can conduct their excavations properly and identify as many remains as possible. But eight months after Saddam's fall, patience is wearing thin.

"Of course it takes time, but we just want to see them begin," said Dr. Rafed al-Husseini, a urologist who heads the Iraqi Society for the Preservation of Mass Graves (search). "We have been waiting for the forensic teams since June."

Hanny Megally, Middle East director for the International Center for Transitional Justice (search) in New York, said the coalition has taken too long to begin digging, and risks seeing family members return to grave sites with backhoes, ruining any chance of proper digging.

"The families were told by leaders not to take the law into their own hands and to wait for a process," he said. "The fear is that people are going to say, `We're not waiting."'

The forensic teams will search for evidence — and in some cases, unearthing a small portion of a mass grave is enough. Iraqis will be trained to do the rest.

Hodgkinson said Iraqis have no interest in using DNA, because the most accurate way to identify remains is also the slowest. In Bosnia, progress has lagged in part because scientists use DNA for all identifications. But she said there has been tremendous interest in the training process.

"The Iraqis have stated very clearly that they would like to recover remains for identification purposes," Hodgkinson said. "If that's what they want, there is nothing more healing than being able to take part in that."

Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (search), a major political party, said identifying the missing is a key part of moving on from three decades of brutal dictatorship. He said it is at least as important as seeing justice served.

"Those people who lost family members need to know where their sons and fathers are, and to rebury them with dignity," he said. "That will bring a lot of peace and comfort to the victims' families and start a process of reconciliation."

For Qanbar, it really doesn't matter how long that takes.

"It might not take a year or two. It might take 10 or 20," he said. "But we have to do it. To this day, people continue to try to find their relatives killed in the Jewish Holocaust. You can't just leave it."


Iraq's U.S.-appointed rulers have drafted a plan to set up a special tribunal for crimes against humanity.

According to four people who have seen the draft — expected to be approved as soon as Sunday — it calls for Iraqi judges to hear cases from Iraqi prosecutors. International experts will participate only as advisers.

Some human rights groups are uncomfortable with the plan, fearful that Iraqis won't have the expertise to convict, or that they will sacrifice justice in their thirst for revenge. Some also say the U.S.-led government forced the plan on Iraqis.

But many Iraqis like the idea. They see an Iraqi-led process — no matter how it comes about — as more satisfying.

"I think it's very important for people to see the criminals who killed their families in court," said al-Saadi at the Human Rights Ministry.

Iraqi officials say that international groups can give them any training they'll need and that Iraqis who know the crimes firsthand are the best ones to try the cases.

"We have been to the mass graves, and often we have seen the corpses even before their families did," said Mohammed Hazim al-Rudeini, a lawyer with Baghdad's Human Rights Society. "We can't get those images out of our minds. We'll defend them as if they were our own families."

There is some controversy over how many trials will be held. U.S. authorities are pushing for a small number of high-profile trials — maybe 100 or so, including Saddam and members of the American "deck of cards" of most-wanted Iraqis. Many Iraqis want to try thousands of people with links to the former regime. It's a delicate balance.

"I think those highly responsible should face the courts," said al-Husseini, the doctor. "For the people who followed their orders, we need forgiveness in Iraq."

In Baghdad, family members of the disappeared have flooded to file accusations with the Human Rights Society and other such groups. That group took in 7,000, then stopped — unable to handle the paperwork.


Villagers dug furiously in Mahaweel in April, carting away more than 2,200 sets of remains. For those they couldn't identify, they dug individual, unmarked graves, and piled the belongings found with them atop the mounds.

In Mahaweel today, 900 mounds sit topped with shreds of clothing, molding in a light drizzle and buffeted by a cold wind.

On one is a pair of child-sized high-tops. On another, a blood-spattered green jacket. A wallet. A string of black prayer beads. Three one-dinar coins: each worth 17 cents when their owner was killed; each now worth five-hundreths of a penny.

A farmer herds sheep in a nearby field, but at Mahaweel's grave site there isn't a living soul.

"It's over," said Atlas Hamid Ode. "People don't go there anymore. They have lost all hope of finding their sons. These graves, without names, will remain as shrines."

If families are losing hope, the start of formal exhumations next month is sure to churn up old feelings. It's a process complex beyond description — a fragile mix of politics, justice and revenge in a delicate country wary of all three.

And relatives hope that in the midst of it all, in an occupied land where the very notion of tomorrow is uncertain, someone, somehow, will help them find peace.