The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Scientists to Excavate Iraqi Graves

AP: Scientists to Excavate Iraqi Graves

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 6, 2003; 12:21 PM

MAHAWEEL, Iraq - 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, then dug
another hole for the next group.

At 5 p.m., the killers - officials of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party -
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 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, 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.

"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.

In the days following Saddam's fall on April 9, family members 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 kept secret to prevent
relatives from disturbing them first.


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

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,'" said archaeologist Barrie
Simpson. "It's not like driving down Route 66 with signposts that
say, `Stop here.'"

Gypsum is one key tool. The Iraqi desert has a hard crust a foot
below the surface, which is broken when a hole is dug. Minerals then
mix to form gypsum, a kind of salt whose glistening white crystals
are 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 the experts switch off before
a reporter enters the room - hold two decades of imagery.

If witnesses report a mass grave was dug in a certain 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," said geoscientist Bruce Gerrick.
"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, and others miles from the nearest road.

They have a long way to go.


Excavating a grave site under international standards is painstaking
work. To pull 100 sets of remains from the ground, it usually takes
six to eight weeks.

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.

Of the 41 mass grave sites confirmed by the coalition team, only four
meet the criteria for full exhumation 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.

Forensic teams were supposed to have been in place months ago, but
several canceled or delayed their trips out of fear for their safety.
Hodgkinson said several 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.

Meanwhile, Iraqis will unearth graves with an eye toward
identification. Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National
Congress, a major political party, said that will help Iraqis move on
from three decades of brutal dictatorship - 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."


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 as

Some human rights groups are uncomfortable with the plan, fearful
that Iraqis won't have the expertise, 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

U.S. authorities are pushing for a small number of high-profile
trials - maybe 100 or so, including Saddam and other key leaders.
Many Iraqis want to try thousands with links to the former regime.

"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."


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. 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.

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

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.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]