Iraqi mass grave contains 'thousands of Saddam's victims'

Iraqi villagers have discovered a mass grave containing the remains of several thousand people apparently put to death by Saddam Hussein's regime. It is thought to be the largest find of its kind in Iraq.

The villagers said that they found the remains of about 3,000 people. Some reports suggest there could be thousands more bodies at the site in the village of Mahawil, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

One villager, Ali Mekki, said: "This is my sweatshirt which my brother Jaafar used to borrow from me all the time." He pulled a maroon-coloured garment from a plastic bag stuffed with human bones, a skull and other bits of clothing. "I believe this is my brother who went missing in 1991."

He tied the ends of the bag to keep everything inside and lit a cigarette. "The lack of a clear name on the identity card makes the identification uncertain. I am waiting for my other brother to come back from home so we can match it with the number. If it really is him, we will give him a proper burial," he said.

Since the fall of Saddam, Iraqi citizens who say they witnessed mass executions in remote parts of the country are now helping to uncover mass grave sites in places as far apart as Najaf and Basra.

At the site in Mahawil, villagers have made piles of bones, skulls and decomposed remains. Some have been placed into plastic bags while others have been left next to the grave. Identity cards found in clothing and empty eye sockets of skulls were visible through the clear plastic.

Most of those who had been buried there appeared to have been dressed in civilian clothes, but there were military uniforms as well.

Relatives searched for bodies of missing loved ones. An elderly woman walking around the remains said she was looking for Haidar Ibrahim Mehdi. "Have you seen such a name in your search?" she asked a group near by.

Many of those who are buried in the village are believed to have been killed in the aftermath of the Shia uprising of 1991, which was initially encouraged but then ignored by the US. Saddam put down the uprising and is believed to have had thousands of people killed. Amnesty International said that over the past 20 years it had collected information about 17,000 disappearances in Iraq. But it said the actual figure might be much higher.

Rafid al-Husseini, a local Iraqi doctor, was trying to organise the retrieval of bodies at Mahawil. He helped to draw up a list of 674 people whose remains were thought to have been uncovered, but said that villagers had recovered the remains of up to 3,000 people.

"We expect many more here. We are trying to match the remains with the names provided by families in the area," he said. "We found bodies on top of each other. Relatives are identifying them with their eyeglasses or other personal effects found among the bodies."

Some groups have demanded that the international community protect such grave sites to assist war crimes prosecutions against senior figures from the Iraqi regime.

But the US military said it wanted to let people come to the site and mourn their relatives in peace.

"This man [Saddam] committed a lot of atrocities [but] we are not going to stand here and disrupt them from their mourning," said Major Al Schmidt, of the US Marines. "We're going to come in as best we can and do what's best for these people."

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