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Iraq: Who Is Buried In Hussein's Mass Graves? (Part 2)

  • Robert McMahon

Tens of thousands of Iraqis disappeared during Saddam Hussein's three decades in power and were presumed to have been executed or imprisoned. Now, with mass graves being discovered and excavated, the fate of those who disappeared may finally be learned. In the second of a four-part series on Iraq's missing persons, RFE/RL looks at who the victims were.

United Nations, 7 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is a vigil shared by Kurdish villagers, Shi'a marsh dwellers and middle-class Kuwaitis.

As word of more mass graves in Iraq emerges -- there have been more than 100 already reported -- old emotions resurface among the broad range of peoples who crossed the regime of Saddam Hussein in the past 24 years.

Iraq's missing fall into many categories, the largest numbers linked to crackdowns following two conflicts -- the 1980-1988 war with Iran and the 1991 Gulf War.

Most appear to be from the northern Kurdish region, where Hussein carried out his "Anfal" campaign in the late 1980s to seek revenge for Kurdish guerrillas who sided against him in the Iran-Iraq war.

In 1988 alone, Human Rights Watch estimates the regime executed about 100,000 Kurds. Kurdish officials say the overall number of victims in the "Anfal" operation is close to 182,000.

In southern and central Iraq, unknown tens of thousands of Shi'a disappeared in the reprisals following their 1991 rebellion against the government. Recent mass grave discoveries in Hillah and Musayyib alone have turned up about 3,500 suspected Shi'a victims.

Iran, meanwhile, has said many of its prisoners of war went missing in Iraq. The number is believed to be more than 2,800.

Kuwait also considers as POWs the more than 600 people rounded up and taken to Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

There had been hopes of finding some of them alive, but they are dimming now that DNA testing has verified the first remains of missing Kuwaitis in southeastern Iraq.

Human rights and forensic experts from nongovernmental groups and the coalition powers are arriving in Iraq to lend order to the cataloging of these crimes. Each new grave appears to confirm the worst fears about the regime, says Paul van Zyl, program director of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

"That's one of the horrors that we're beginning to discover," van Zyl said. "There were so many different phases in which there was perceived resistance to the Iraqi regime from so many different quarters that the repression occurred pretty much across the board."

The Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based NGO, took part in a recent meeting in Baghdad (30 June-1 July ) that focused on the missing and mass graves. Participants included Iraqi experts, as well as international human rights monitors and representatives from the governing coalition.

Rights groups that have been cataloging the abuses of the regime estimate the toll of missing at close to 300,000. There are no confirmed numbers, but they are expected to be high, says Mona Rishmawi, senior adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Baghdad.

"Nobody has exact figures. People add up figures, and adding up the figures would come up to 200,000 or a bit more -- between 200,000 and, I would say, 200,000 to 300,000. The figure is not exaggerated," she says.

Those figures could rise further after the regime's final years are studied. The UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Iraq, Andreas Mavrommatis, visited the country in February 2002, the first such trip by a UN rights investigator in 10 years.

He reported afterward that he continued to receive allegations of human rights violations committed by the government, including arbitrary and extrajudicial executions. Mavrommatis had planned a return visit to investigate further but was sidelined by the war.

Mavrommatis was one of two UN officials charged with looking into the missing persons at the time the regime fell.

Former Russian diplomat Yuli Vorontsov was appointed three years ago after the Security Council instructed the UN Secretariat to help resolve the fate of the missing Kuwaitis and other third-party nationals. Despite repeated urging, Iraq never complied.

Kuwait's deputy ambassador to the UN, Mansour al-Otaibi, says with the fall of the regime, Kuwaitis are pressing for information about their loved ones. On the scale of abuses committed by the regime, the fate of 600 persons may seem small, but al-Otaibi tells RFE/RL they figure greatly in a country of 800,000 people.

"After 13 years, we were really hoping to see at least one alive because what's important is, this is a humanitarian issue, and we always insist on that," al-Otaibi says. "We don't want to politicize it. If you go and visit these families, you will realize the agony of the Kuwaiti people. And we hope now, after the falling of the Iraqi regime, that all the fate of them will be known, not only to the family and to the Kuwaitis but for everybody. We have to actually learn a lesson from that, and we want to make sure that we don't want to allow any regimes to do these kinds of heinous crimes."

Those rounded up by the Iraqis ranged from high-ranking officials, such as a member of parliament, to those of more common rank. Al-Otaibi said one of the first victims identified last month was a fireman, still wearing his red firefighting suit.

"It's really a tragedy. It's unbelievable to see Arabs -- this is an Arab regime, Muslims -- doing that to [their] own people and to [Iraq's] neighboring Arab countries," Al-Otaibi said. "And when we identify these remains, we prove that we have credibility because many officials -- the Iraqis and the others who supported [Hussein] -- they were actually [having] doubts about our efforts."

Unlike the Kuwaitis, Kurdish families long ago gave up hope of seeing their missing relatives alive, says Kurdish filmmaker Jano Rosebiani. He has been collecting interviews throughout the northern Kurdish provinces for a documentary on the region.

Rosebiani was in New York recently for a human rights film festival, in which he showed his film "Jiyan," about the 1988 chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabjah. He told RFE/RL the trauma is still evident in the region.

"Any Kurd you would find or any family, they have a tragedy or at the mention of it would bring them to tears. So they are living with that. But at the same time, they know finding the bones of their missed ones will not improve their situation, will not add to their comfort, if they have any," Rosebiani says.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds have found dozens of mass graves in the provinces of Sulaimaniya, Arbil, Duhok, and Kirkuk, areas which they controlled. Further graves have been found near the city of Kirkuk since Hussein's regime fell. As in the rest of the country, the victims included men, women, and children.

In Part 3, we look at the prospects for bringing the killers to justice.