By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 30, 2005
BAGHDAD, April 29 -- U.S. investigators have exhumed the remains of 113 people -- all but five of them women, children or teenagers -- from a mass grave in southern Iraq that may hold at least 1,500 victims of Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurdish minority in the 1980s, U.S. and Iraqi officials said this week.
The recovered bodies are expected to be among the evidence used against the deposed Iraqi president by prosecutors at a special tribunal, investigators said.
The non-acidic soil at the grave site preserved layers and layers of distinctive Kurdish clothing worn by many of the victims, suggesting that they may have piled on their best clothes expecting to be relocated, investigators said.
Authorities showed reporters some of the remains, including the skull of an older woman with pink dentures and the skeleton of a teenage girl clutching a bag of possessions.
"These were not combatants," said Gregg Nivala, a member of a U.S. team investigating crimes committed by Hussein's government and assisting the tribunal. "These were women and children."
Authorities took a group of journalists to the site, near the southern city of Samawah, about 150 miles southeast of Baghdad, on Tuesday on condition that they not identify the exact location of the grave, for fear of tampering, and refrain from reporting on the visit until Friday. Washington Post reporters were not among the group.
The grave actually is a series of 18 trenches, which investigators say they believe Iraqi forces dug with front loaders and maintained for systematic executions.
Investigators said that women and children were forced to stand at the edge of the pits, then shot with AK-47 assault rifles. Casings were found near the site, they said.
"They sprayed people with bullets so they fell back" into the graves, Iraq's human rights minister, Bakhtyar Amin, told reporters.
From 1987 to 1988, Hussein initiated a wave of violence, called the Anfal campaign, to punish the Kurds for siding with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Hussein's forces forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their lands in northern Iraq. Amin said as many as half a million people died or were killed outright and thousands of villages were destroyed.
Hussein's forces carried out similar campaigns against the Shiite majority. More than 300 mass graves have been found across Iraq since U.S.-led forces overthrew Hussein in March 2003, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. The grave near Samawah would be one of the largest.
Authorities allege that Gen. Ali Hassan Majeed, known as Chemical Ali for his repeated use of poisonous gas against villagers, oversaw much of the Anfal campaign under the orders of Hussein. The Anfal campaign is expected to provide some of the main charges in any trial of Hussein, who is in U.S. custody in Baghdad with other officials of the deposed government.
"It will ease the suffering and pain of many families to establish a truth for part of the history of Iraq. It will tell us more about what has happened and to whom," Amin told reporters. "Wouldn't you, God forbid, if your father or brother was killed, wouldn't you want to know it was your loved one? You would want to know how they were killed and to see who killed them brought before justice."
During the 1990s, Kurdish forces captured thousands of papers allegedly documenting the Anfal campaign, one of at least three waves of relocations and killings of Kurds carried out by Hussein's government beginning in 1969.
Raid Juhi, chief investigative judge for the special tribunal, said prosecutors have interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses in the Anfal case. Juhi said some of those accused in the campaign have cooperated with investigators, but he would not elaborate.
The Shiite and Kurdish coalition voted into power in January has said it wants a speedy trial for Hussein. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari has been quoted as saying he wants the trial within the year.
Forensic teams dug at the grave site from April 7 to 24, and removed remains for criminal investigators. Crews used heavy equipment to remove the top soil, then switched to hand tools. It was unclear when the site was discovered.
Ten of the 18 trenches are believed to hold remains. Magnetic imaging was used to help reach the estimate of 1,500 victims.
Of the 113 bodies removed from one trench, two-thirds were children or teenagers. Most of the children were very young, and 10 were infants, authorities said.