Mass grave reveals remains of Iraqi women and children

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The Independent Online

The horrific secrets of a mass grave in northern Iraq emerged yesterday as American officials accused Europeans of failing to help in the search to uncover Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

The horrific secrets of a mass grave in northern Iraq emerged yesterday as American officials accused Europeans of failing to help in the search to uncover Saddam Hussein's atrocities.

Hundreds of bodies, including those of pregnant women, children clutching toys and men bound and blindfolded were exhumed at a site in Hatra, near Mosul. The dead are said to be Kurds shot by Iraqi forces in the late 1980s, during a campaign that included the chemical attack on the town of Halabja.

The evidence released yesterday is expected to be used against Saddam and members of his regime at their trial next year. But the man heading the investigation, Greg Kehoe, an American human rights lawyer, said that searches for victims of other massacres in more than 40 sites in Iraq were being hampered because European experts were not joining in.

Mr Kehoe, who had spent five years investigating war crimes in the Balkans alongside European colleagues, said that because of limited funds his team could only excavate one mass grave at a time.

But Europeans, vastly experienced in such inquiries, "don't want to help out because of the ramifications of the death penalty" Saddam and fellow defendants face if convicted.

The 25 member states of the European Union have abolished capital punishment within its borders, and EU countries, including Britain, routinely refuse to extradite people to the US and other nations unless they receive guarantees that the suspects will not be executed.

American officials also feel that some of the European experts are antagonistic to the US position on Iraq, and there is also widespread concern about safety. The discovery, however, will help George Bush and Tony Blair, both under fierce criticism over false claims of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They can be expected to contend that this buttresses their argument that Iraq and the rest of the world is a better place without Saddam in power.

Saddam's regime has been accused by human rights organisations of being responsible for killing up to 300,000 Iraqi and Kurdish civilians, although the figures are disputed. The US authorities and the Iraqi interim government claim that more than 40 mass graves have been identified so far.

The massacre site at Hatra, in Nineveh province, was found by US forces a year ago. The victims, from the Dokan Lake area, near Sulaymaniyah, are said to have been killed during the Anfal (The Spoils of War) campaign launched by Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid between late 1987 and early 1988, in which there were large-scale summary executions, as well as the use of mustard gas and sarin on the population of 5,000 in Halabja in March 1988. At the time Saddam was seen as an ally of the West against the Ayatollahs of Iran and criticism of his brutality was muted, especially by the US and Britain.

Excavation at Hatra began on 1 September, with the first details being disclosed now. Investigators found 300 bodies piled into two trenches; 120 bodies have been dug up and up to 10 other trenches are yet to be exhumed. The women and children were killed by small arms fire. The men in the second trench - many tied up and blindfolded - appeared to have been killed with semi-automatic rifles. Among the bodies was that of a woman shot in the face. She was carrying a child, about two years old, who had been shot in the back of the head. A boy was clutching a red and white football when he died.

Some of the murdered women were pregnant. "The youngest foetus we have was 18 to 20 foetal weeks. Tiny bones, femurs, thighbones the size of a matchstick," said Dr Patrick Willey, an investigative anthropologist from California.

Mr Kehoe said: "I've been doing gravesites for a long time and I've never seen anything like it, women and children executed for no reason." he said.