- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

LAKE HABBANIYA, Iraq — A skull with a bullet hole in the temple, lying among 16 male corpses, and another skull protruding from a deep pit provided what appeared to be the first grisly clues to the fate of 605 Kuwaitis kidnapped by the Iraqi regime during its occupation of its neighbor more than 12 years ago.

An intensive search for Kuwaiti soldiers and civilians missing since the first Persian Gulf war may have ended at this remote site, where skulls, brown pants and bones sticking up eerily from the sand were unearthed in the first day of digging at the site.

When Saddam Hussein fell, there were grim hopes that the missing might still be alive but starving in one of the regime’s prisons. Coalition searches found the prisons empty.

Instead, it now appears the Kuwaitis were already dead.

Ten buses carrying the “disappeared” had been driven northwest of Baghdad past the relatively prosperous city of Fallujah, according to the driver of one of the buses. The prisoners were unloaded, shot, then buried in deep pits.

The driver’s account is impossible to verify. He declined to come to the execution site himself, but instead gave specific location information to a friend.

A mechanical digger was hired and at about 9 feet down, the depth specified by the driver, the first human remains were unearthed.

The discoveries are made near the city of Fallujah, where recent protests against U.S. troops have left around 20 dead. There are also two huge air bases in the vicinity, both controlled by U.S. troops.

The bus driver remains terrified of retribution for revealing the secret, said Tamara Chalabi, an official of the former exile group the Iraqi National Congress, who was present at the excavation yesterday at this windswept, remote site by one of the country’s largest lakes.

“The stench of death was here most of the day,” said a U.S. soldier whose special forces unit was based for more than a month within 200 yards of the mass grave without any inkling of its existence. He was under orders not to reveal his identity or that of his unit.

When the unit arrived here, said the soldier, there was already another small grave site, with five sets of human remains unearthed and lying on the sand. “We never dreamed there were any more,” he said.

“This grim discovery, together with the mass grave sites being found across the country in cities like Hilla, reveal to the world the scope of the brutality of Saddam’s regime, and his crimes against humanity,” said Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader.

“Those who supported this regime are now witnessing the monster that they enabled,” he added.

He called for international forensic teams to fly in to deal with the mounting number of mass grave sites being unearthed. A U.S. team is to begin work this weekend, U.S. authorities announced Thursday.

Another site was found yesterday near Najaf, a city holy to Shiite Muslims, whose revolt in 1991 was brutally put down by the Saddam regime. The remains of 45 persons were pulled from the ground in about three hours at that site.

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