- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

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. About 50 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 — members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath 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 Shi’ite Muslim uprising that followed the 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 upwards 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 after Saddam’s fall on April 9, family members rushed to grave sites, digging for ID cards and clothing that could confirm 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.

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.

Satellite imagery key

In a tiny backroom of the deposed Iraqi president’s sprawling brick-and-marble palace in Baghdad, American and British researchers 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 analysts 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, analysts can use data from images taken in February 1991 and June 1991 to 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, other specialists are trying to identify which graves could help prosecutors build a case against those responsible for them.

“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, four meet the criteria for full exhumation so far, said several members of the scientific team. 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. Miss Hodgkinson said several are ready to begin work in late January.

Reconciliation

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.

Four persons who have seen the draft — expected to be approved as soon as today — say it calls for Iraqi judges to hear cases from Iraqi prosecutors. International specialists will participate as advisers.

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 Mr. al-Saadi at the Human Rights Ministry.

U.S. authorities are pushing for a manageable 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.

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 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.

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