- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

An international team of forensic specialists will travel to Iraq next month to begin exhuming mass graves and collecting evidence of crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime against Iraqis and others, said U.S. authorities in Iraq.

The evidence then can be used in war-crimes and human rights trials. The Iraqi Governing Council is creating special courts to try former regime leaders.

Iraq has at least 271 suspected mass graves, each of which contains a minimum of five bodies. About 60 mass graves have been confirmed. Another 70 have been discounted by one source but likely will be examined more closely before being taken off the list, said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, director of human rights in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice.

The office is staffed by Iraqi, British, American, Australian and Czech personnel.

International teams and newly trained Iraqis will examine and secure eight to 20 mass graves that were created from one of five major events during Saddam’s reign — the 1983 execution of 8,000 Kurds, the 1988 Anfal campaign in which 182,000 people disappeared, the chemical attacks against Kurds between 1986 and 1988, and the 1991 massacres of rebelling Shi’ites and rebellious Kurds, both of which rose up after the Persian Gulf war with the encouragement of the United States.

The mass graves to be examined must be undisturbed or intact, and the local population must be willing to have the site exhumed and examined, rather than calling for the immediate and proper burial of the victims.

Eleven of the 271 suspected mass graves were exhumed by family members immediately after the war.

The remaining known sites have not been exhumed and are being guarded to preserve evidence or are in undisclosed locations.

Mass graves not selected for forensic work will be exhumed by local community teams that will receive special training.

Miss Hodgkinson is aware of the powerful emotions stirred by discovery of a mass grave. In Hillah, a scene of major atrocities against Shi’ites in 1991, the discovery of a mass grave containing at least 3,000 bodies kicked off nearly a week of digging and bone collecting by family members.

Miss Hodgkinson said that once the initial rush subsided, Iraqis showed the restraint needed for proper forensic work to be conducted.

“Organizations such as the Society for the Preservation of Mass Graves, the Free Prisoners Association and the Human Rights Ministry have all worked to encourage patience and to discourage unskilled digging, for the purpose of ensure the maximum number of identifications can take place,” she said.

The Iraqi ministry is setting up a Bureau of Missing Persons to help ensure that the identification of newly discovered remains proceeds smoothly, she said.

The forensic team will be searching for physical and other types of evidence to corroborate witness accounts.

“Here is an example: a witness who says, ‘I saw [blank] shoot approximately 100 people in the head here.’

“If you find in that location approximately 100 bodies with bullet holes in the head, then you can link the crime to a possible perpetrator. The team looks for any information that could tell how, when, why a particular event takes place; [and] who committed it,” Miss Hodgkinson said.

The Iraqi Governing Council announced plans in December for an Iraq Special Tribunal, which will have the power to try former regime officials on charges including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, tampering with the judiciary, waging war on an Arab state and squandering Iraqi assets.

In May, the International Forensic Center of Excellence for the Investigation of Genocide, a British nongovernmental organization, contracted with the British government to work with the CPA to develop standard protocols to govern the forensic work. Specialists from the group then performed 15 initial forensic site assessments.

Since then, teams from Denmark, Britain and the United States have performed forensic site assessments in coordination with the CPA forensic team.

The Finnish government plans to send a team this month, the CPA said. The Swedish government has offered to donate a tenting system to house forensic teams on site during their work.

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