Despairing Shias search for the bones of loved ones

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There were two reasons for Ali Shahed Aun to search among the bones, some skulls still bearing tufts of youthful black hair, amid the reek of bloodied rags in hundreds of plastic bags around him.

The principal one was to find the remains of his brother, Abed, among thousands of Iraqi Shias murdered by Saddam Hussein suppressing the uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. The other was to witness the awful fate that might so easily have befallen him too, had he not thought quickly.

Mr Aun, an army deserter at the time, remembers his close escape precisely: it was less than a mile from the mass grave in fields near Hillah, 50 miles south of Baghdad, where he was yesterday to be found sitting under a tree, eyes blazing with anger. And he recalls the exact time and date: 11am, 13 March 1991.

That, he said, was when he was spirited away from his home town at gunpoint and bundled into army lorries with hundreds of other terrified Shia people rounded up by security forces. They disembarked near by, and were forced to stand in lines.

"It was not far from here," he said, as we gazed at dozens of Iraqis wandering forlornly amid the mounds of earth and deep holes, gouged out earlier by a big yellow digger, its teeth showering bones, and rummaging among the bags. They, too, had come to find the victims of that day, and other atrocities, and were working through the bags at the biggest Iraqi mass grave found so far.

Mr Aun went on: "When we got out of the trucks we saw three helicopters on the ground, and about 100 Iraqi soldiers in dark green combat clothes and red keffiyehs. They lined us up and searched us. They look at our arms [for tattoos]. They look for rings, for knives, for any tell-tale sign that we might be part of the Shia intifada. If you had no ID, they took you away. If you looked confused, they took you, too."

He managed to escape because, although he had deserted in disgust before the invasion of Kuwait, he convinced the soldiers he was still in the military and on his way to his base. "They shoved me in the back and told me to go and not turn around as I walked away. There were just two of us who got away. The rest were taken."

Until this week, Mr Aun could only suspect the fate of those frightened men he left behind him, being beaten by the soldiers before their execution. But yesterday, in Saddam's killing fields, all doubt was gone. "What can I say about this?" he said. "There are no words to describe this. Saddam is a murderer and a son of a bitch."

Like many in Iraq's Shia majority, he was angry, too, over the failure of the Americans to support the uprising. "If they had let the intifada continue one more day, Saddam would have fallen. But the Americans did nothing."

No one knows the number of people in the ground outside Hillah. The Iraqi National Congress talks in five figures. But at present the toll appears closer to 3,000. The exact number will never be known. The site has been trampled. There is no systematic professional cataloguing of the exhumed bodies; the Allied officials trying to stamp their authority talk airily of sending in specialists, but say it would only provoke further tensions if they were to stop Shia families retrieving their dead.

Human Rights Watch has called it a "shameful failure" by the US because vital evidence that could be used to prosecute the perpetrators is being destroyed. Yesterday there were 1,000 piles of remains, some in numbered bags, some individual piles of clothes, teeth and bones, around the site. Hundreds of others may have been taken away for mourning and burial by Shias, by people such as Alwan al-Husseini, who found the bones of his father, a clerk dragged out of his hospital and murdered.

More Shia men and women were pouring in steadily, some on foot, others in pick-up trucks. The hunt is slow and frustrating. By mid-afternoon, Mr Aun had not found his brother, taken by soldiers a month after he escaped.

Mohammed al-Jibouri, 35, says he left his farm a month ago to find his brother. We found Mohammedseveral miles away on a mud lane in marshland, with his 15-year-old son. The place was deserted but for the 40-yard heap of bones he was searching, feeling in pockets of blood-stained coats for his brother's ID card, peering for clues among the detritus. When he finds his brother's body parts, he will wrap them in a blanket and take them home in the back of his pick-up. That is how such matters are now settled in the chaos of postwar Iraq.