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Iraq: Rights Group Decries Chaos Surrounding Discovery Of Mass Grave

In Iraq, the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of victims of Saddam Hussein's regime is stirring emotion and controversy in equal measure. Human rights monitors say the site may provide key evidence of the ruthlessness of the deposed regime. But they worry the chaos surrounding the grave, where Iraqis are frantically searching for the bodies of their loved ones, may destroy crucial forensic evidence before a proper investigation can be conducted. RFE/RL reports from Baghdad.

Baghdad, 15 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Human Rights Watch (HRW) monitoring agency says new evidence suggests that atrocities in Saddam's Hussein's Iraq may have been committed on a much larger scale than those in Bosnia or Kosovo.

The agency's comments follow the discovery of a mass grave in Mahawil, a town south of the capital Baghdad. The grave appears to hold the remains of at least 3,000 people believed to be mostly Shi'ite Muslims killed in an uprising against Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraqis believe there are many more such graves to be discovered in the country, and hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have disappeared during the Hussein regime.

The Mahawil discovery represents key evidence of the crimes committed by the deposed regime. But an HRW spokesman says much of the evidence may be destroyed as desperate Iraqis search for remains of their loved ones with little intervention from U.S. troops or forensic investigators.

HRW spokesman Peter Bouckaert says his team visited the site yesterday and was shocked by the lack of organization at the site, where U.S. officials have allowed Iraqis to search freely for the remains of their relatives. Bouckaert says similar scenes are playing out through much of Shi'ite-dominated southern Iraq.

"Well, all over the country mass graves are being identified, some of them containing thousands of bodies. And people are flocking to these sites to try to exhume their relatives. It is a completely chaotic situation. There is no professional forensic assistance for these people, so they just go in. In today's case [in Mahawil, they went in] with a bulldozer to exhume the bodies and in the process many parts of the bodies were separated, crucial evidence gets destroyed," Bouckaert says.

Many of the bodies were originally found with faded identification cards and other personal items. But Bouckaert says as more and more people look over the remains, the less chance there is that an official, accurate count will ever be made -- or that Iraqis will ever find their lost loved ones.

"People are really desperate to find their missing relatives and in some cases they wrongly identify the bodies. I met one man today who was looking for his brother, and he picked up a body because it had a pack of cigarettes that was the same brand that his brother used to smoke. I'm sure there were many people in this grave who smoked the same kind of cigarettes, but that's the kind of desperation that we see out there on a daily basis," Bouckaert says.

The HRW spokesman says the collapse of the Hussein regime has freed many Iraqis to look for bodies in areas they long suspected were the sites of mass graves. Bouckaert says there are dozens of such sites all over Iraq -- in the Kurdish north as well as in the south -- and that new graves are being uncovered on almost a daily basis. "This country is literally littered with mass graves," he says, adding that, by conservative estimates, at least 230,000 Iraqis have disappeared over the past two decades.

For many Iraqis who lost family members to the atrocities of the Hussein regime, the discovery of graves like that at Mahawil are a chance for a sort of emotional closure, albeit a painful one. But for groups like HRW, they are also the key evidence needed for future prosecution of the Iraqi officials responsible for the slaughter.

Bouckaert says that in the case of former Yugoslavia, forensic evidence was crucial in bringing former leaders and military commanders to trial. But while the U.S. led a massive forensic effort in Kosovo -- eventually exhuming and identifying some 6,000 bodies -- the same commitment is lacking in the case of Iraq. With Iraqis quickly stripping gravesites of whatever remains they can find, Bouckaert says there soon may be little evidence left to convict the former Iraqi elite.

"All the evidence we are finding points to crimes against humanity that were committed on a massive scale," Bouckaert says, adding that individual mass graves in Iraq may contain more bodies than were found on the entire territory of Kosovo. But, he says, "without forensic evidence it will be very difficult to prosecute Iraqi leaders for their crimes."