ZAHAMM, Iraq — The graves of more than 50 people thought killed by al Qaeda in Iraq during their two-year reign of terror in Diyala province’s “bread basket” region have been found in a pomegranate orchard in a village near the town of Himbus.
Excavations at the site began last week and were expected to continue after troops of the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment were tipped to the location by a man who claimed to have escaped from al Qaeda’s “jail” there last summer.
Only about a third of the untended orchard, located off a road leading from the village to Himbus, about three miles north, has been searched so far.
Two nearby orchards thought to be burial grounds also have to be looked at, raising the prospect that the Zahamm farms could collectively rank as one of the largest al Qaeda killing fields found in Iraq.
Himbus and the villages nearby are northeast of the major town of Muqdadiya, north of Baghdad.
In 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq declared Diyala province the center of its Islamic State of Iraq caliphate. The Himbus area, with its fruit orchards providing cover from aircraft, became a major weapons storage area and training center. And it ruled with an iron fist.
“When they first came into the area, they said they were mujahideen fighting the occupation forces. But later they started forcing people to give them money and forcing them from their homes. People who worked for the Iraq Army or the Iraqi Police were punished,” said Sheik Abbas Hussein Khalaf, the leader of nearby Taiyah village.
“They imposed their rules: no music, no smoking, the woman had to wear the veil, and there were no wedding celebrations allowed. No one was allowed out after 5 p.m.
“Some people were shot in front of the people in the street, others were kidnapped, killed and put in the mass graves.”
One of them was a cousin, he said, the brother of the man who had escaped and told U.S. troops about the graves.
Mass executions, once associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime, became a tool of terror used by al Qaeda as it took over vast swaths of Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
With tens of thousands of Sunni fighters joining the year-old U.S. troop surge, al Qaeda fighters have been forced out of former strongholds, giving locals security needed to report horrors like this mass grave discovered here.
Elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, Shi’ite-against-Shi’ite fighting that dominated news reports for the past week eased when cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets nationwide, the Associated Press reported from Baghdad.
The Iraqi government quickly welcomed Sheik al-Sadr’s apparent move to resolve a widening conflict, sparked Tuesday by Iraqi government operations against his backers in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.
Instead of fighting, followers handed out sweets in Baghdad’s main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City, which was named after Sheik al-Sadr’s late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, the AP reported.
Before Sheik al-Sadr’s statement, dozens of Shi’ite gunmen yesterday stormed a government TV facility in central Basra, forcing Iraqi troops guarding the building to flee and setting armored vehicles on fire, according to the AP.
In contrast to much of Iraq, which is divided into Sunni and Shi’ite areas, Diyala province northeast of Baghdad is said to reflect the mixed ethnic makeup of the entire country.
As a result, it has suffered some of worst — and least reported — violence in five years since the U.S.-led invasion.
Surging U.S. troops did not arrive in northern Diyala until January, a year after President Bush first announced the troop buildup.
“Smell that?” a U.S. soldier asked as he entered the grove with Sheik Khalaf and an American reporter on an exploratory visit. No one answered. The gagging stench of rotting flesh was unmistakable.
The first shallow grave found by soldiers and the sheik contained the remains of a man dead for some time. There was no flesh on the bones. The severed head, wrapped in a traditional headdress, was at the body’s feet.
“I will contact the muktars [leaders] in the other villages,” Sheik Khalaf said. “I’ll tell them what we found.”
Twenty-eight graves were found the next day by the sheik and a handful of village volunteers. Their contents were left in place for later disinterment. On Thursday, with a U.S. military escort, more than 100 volunteers from 10 villages near Himbus descended on the orchard with shovels and white bedsheets from which to make shrouds.
After just a few minutes of digging, the loud talk among the men who had broken into groups became low murmurs. The only other sounds heard were shovels digging into earth, the sounds of people vomiting from the stench that spread like a greasy cloud, and quiet discussions on how best to extricate the remains.
Most of those unearthed had not been decapitated. They had been bound and shot in the back of the head. The cords that bound their wrists were still there. Many skulls still had blindfolds over the eye sockets.
It was difficult to tell how long a body had been in the ground. Some lacked all flesh; others were still decomposing. One man in a police uniform may have died just before U.S. forces pushed into the area nearly three months ago. His facial features were still distinct, locked in a grimace.
Two hours of digging disinterred the original 29 bodies and at least eight more. At least 14 more were discovered and excavated Saturday during two hours of digging by 40 volunteers.
“When you find [al Qaeda] kill them. Kill them all,” said Kareemhiya Marzi al-Shumari, an elderly woman from the village of Haruniya.
Mrs. al-Shumari said her son Mohammed Jaber, 42, was taken away by al Qaeda in July after he repeatedly refused to join them.
As men dug she went from excavation site to excavation site, slapping her face in grief, crying loudly and lifting her hands skyward.
Several other women were with her, and picked up pieces of paper scattered in the orchard in the hope of finding something, anything that would give a clue if their loved ones would be found beneath the dry earth.
The orchard, one volunteer said, had belonged to a Shi’ite farmer. Al Qaeda requisitioned it by killing him and driving his family away.
“They’re beat. Just look at their faces,” Capt. Vince Morris, who had helped organize the search and was present to document the finds, said of the volunteers. “I don’t think they’ll do this much longer today.”
Digging is expected to continue for weeks. It’s spring in Iraq and time to clean the fields. And the discarded clothing found nearby — including children’s clothing — held the promise of more horror to come.