A US Marine walks next to
remains found in a mass grave 
uncovered in Babylon 100 kms
south of Baghdad

The skeletal remains on display Monday showed signs of physical trauma. Some

still had faded bandages tied around the eye sockets and black cloth binding the feet.

 

Several skulls had large holes on one side or were crushed in the back. In each open wooden coffin, the bones were carefully wrapped in white rags, surrounded by scraps of hair, bits of teeth and bones.

 

The visible evidence of their demise drove scores of women to wailing and men to weep. By mid-morning, 13 bodies had been identified by their families.

 

The Iraqi National Congress (INC) confirmed the find and appealed to the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to offer more help.

 

"In the last week, four sites have been discovered in Al-Hilla city alone, with approximately 15,000 bodies," said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman of the group led by US-backed Ahmed Chalabi.

 

"Citizens are excavating with great sadness and no assistance, collecting bones. Mothers and fathers are trying to identify their children with ID cards and scraps of clothes that they were last seen in," he told reporters.

 

He appealed to the US-led coalition's ORHA, non-governmental organisations and human rights groups "to help the Iraqi people account for hundreds of thousands of missing."

 

Failed revolts

 

A Shia Muslim stronghold, Basra citizens were punished during former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's era for fostering insurgencies against his Sunni-dominated rule.

 

Just after the 1991 Gulf War, Shiite rebels rose in protest, only to be crushed by military forces. Thousands were believed to have been killed after the failed revolt.

 

As many as 15,000 bodies could
be uncovered
In March 1999 came a second uprising in Basra, this one following the
execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Mohamed Mohamed Al-Sadr.

 

During this wave, thousands more people were arrested, imprisoned, and in some cases executed by the ruling Baath Party.

 

Destruction of evidence

If forensic experts confirm the findings, the mass graves at Hillah and the village of Muhammed Sakran would be the largest discovered since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in the US-led war.

But they fear attempts by citizens to unearth graves on their own will complicate future efforts to assemble evidence needed to prosecute members of the former regime.

 

Over the past 20 years, Amnesty International has collected information on around 17,000 disappearances in Iraq, but says the actual figure may be much higher.

Residents using tractors and, later, their hands excavated bodies this week from graves in the central Iraqi town of Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

In a news release Tuesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the United States had known about the Hillah site since early May when the mayor of the city asked for help in guarding the graves, and US forces refused.

 

Relatives of disappeared Iraqis
are wondering whether their next
of kin are among the new discoveries

“The US government has not acted on important information about mass graves in Iraq,” said Peter Bouckaert, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The result is desperate families trying to dig up the site themselves - disturbing the evidence for forensic experts who could professionally establish the identities of the victims.”

 

In the month since Saddam Hussein's regime was ousted, information found in secret police files and documents, as well as tips from eyewitnesses, have shed light on his methods of controlling and terrorising people.

 

Along with the tales of torture and imprisonment came reports about mass graves.

 

Human rights groups contend that the country is dotted with anonymous graves, Other mass graves have been found in or near Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad.