HATRA, Iraq – Investigators have begun unearthing a mass grave near this northern Iraqi village, uncovering more than 100 bodies and seeking evidence to use in a future trial of Saddam Hussein (search).
The bodies, believed to be Kurds killed during Saddam's crackdown in 1987-88, are buried in nine trenches, according to Greg Kehoe, an American who works with the Iraqi Special Tribunal (search), which is preparing the trial of Saddam and his henchmen.
Kehoe said his team has removed 120 bodies from a trench believed to contain as many as 300 bodies.
He said that because of limited funds and resources, his team can excavate only one mass grave at a time. European teams who worked on Bosnian mass graves (search) are not helping because of their concerns that Saddam could face the death penalty, he said.
"It is my personal opinion that this is a killing field," Kehoe told reporters during a visit to the site south of Mosul. "Someone used this field on significant occasions over time to take bodies up there, and to take people up there and execute them."
Kehoe said the bodies were apparently bulldozed into the graves.
"Unlike bodies that you've seen in many mass graves — they look like cordwood — all lined up," he said. "That didn't happen here. These bodies were just pushed in."
He said excavators found the body of a mother still clutching her baby. The infant was shot in the back of the head and the mother in the face.
Kehoe said that most mass graves in Bosnia largely contain men of fighting age. Graves near Hatra included many women and children, he said.
"Genocide is the attempt to eliminate, limit or exterminate a religious, ethnic, national or racial group," he said. "The Kurds are clearly a different nationality. So could it be considered genocide? It could be. Killing, ethnic cleansing, property relocations, all of those were used to try to limit the Kurdish population. What it is fundamentally is downright murder."
Human rights organizations estimate that more than 300,000 people were killed during Saddam's 24-year rule, which ended when U.S.-led forces toppled his regime in 2003.
Saddam is expected to stand trial for crimes against humanity and other offenses next year. No trial date has been set.