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Iraq Commemorates Victims Of Hussein's Mass Graves

Remains recovered from a mass grave in Al-Samawa, Iraq
AL-NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) -- Iraqi officials paid have tribute to victims of Saddam Hussein's repression, but fell short of meeting relatives' demands for compensation and DNA tests to identify thousands of bodies discovered in mass graves.

Saddam's Sunni Arab-led government brutally put down a Shi'ite uprising in 1991, and relatives of the victims marched in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf this week demanding compensation and DNA tests.

"The bodies of those most beloved and dear buried in this land will be the seeds of blessing," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, told a conference called to commemorate the victims.

Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi'ite, called for "real procedures to ensure the care and support of the families of the martyrs in mass graves, to have access to schools, health care, travel and government posts.

"We will avenge those martyrs when we establish a constitutional and democratic state aimed at safeguarding the people rather than officials," he said.

After the fall of Hussein in 2003, investigators discovered dozens of mass graves containing thousands of decayed bodies, mainly victims of Hussein's crackdown on Shi'ites during an uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War.

Buried Empty Coffins

New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch estimates some 290,000 people disappeared under Hussein, many of them murdered and heaped in ditches.

Family members buried scores of empty coffins on October 7 in a ceremonial tribute to the victims.

Women in black robes knelt by the empty coffins silently clutching photographs of their missing relatives while an honor guard of Iraqi police officers held flags.

A woman who gave her name as Umm Ali, 68, carried photographs of seven sons, all killed during the uprising. She said she has worn black robes of mourning since 1991.

"I lost my seven sons. The government and [Prime Minister] Nuri al-Maliki should help me," she said, weeping. "I gave up the blood of my sons for the sake of a better Iraq and better future. But now I cannot find anyone who will support me. I live on handouts.

"If my seven sons were still alive, they would not leave me dependent on others for a crust of bread."