HILLAH, Iraq — Hundreds of Iraqis whose loved ones vanished during the 1991 Shiite Muslim uprising watched Tuesday as workers dug into a mass grave, a backhoe pulling up eight or nine bodies at a time, and perhaps as many as 3,000 over the past four days.
Villagers clutched the remains to their chests, trying to keep them intact as they fell from the machine's big shovel. They laid the bodies in the dirt nearby, next to hundreds of others waiting to be claimed. Then they searched for personal papers, the remnants of a wristwatch or other items that might reveal the identities of the dead.
People were relieved to find that many had been buried with identification cards stuck in pockets or purses. Some came out of the ground with blindfolds still tied around their skulls, their wrist bones bound with rope. It is believed to be the largest mass grave found in Iraq so far.
Nama Khalef Jara went from one set of remains to another, searching for his little brother, Tahar. When he found him, a heap of bones, his dirt-covered identity card on top of his skull, Jara collapsed to the ground and wrapped his arms around his brother.
"I am here, Tahar," he cried. "I am here."
Local residents say they have long known about the existence of several mass graves in this area about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Some believe the graves could hold the bodies of 10,000 to 15,000 people executed amid a purge of rebel Shiite factions after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
As clumps of hair blew across the hard, dry land, Jabar Sattar sat rocking and sobbing on a hill of dirt created by the backhoe. He cradled a clear plastic bag containing the remains of his younger brother Faris.
Faris was a soldier, he said, and had just returned from Kuwait when private security men arrested him in his frontyard, just two miles from the grave site.
"I looked for 12 years," Sattar cried into the bag of remains. "Every day I told myself, you're alive and will come back. Now what am I going to say to our father?"
The dead men, women and children, both Shiite and Sunni, were executed between early March and mid-April in 1991, said Jabar Arjawi, the farmer who first led villagers to the several-acre site last week. Arjawi was one of the few people who knew for certain what had taken place in the clearing between his wheat fields, villagers said, and was forced to keep his secret, or risk death, until the executioners fled during the U.S.-led invasion this March.
Arjawi lives in the only home within sight of the killing field, about three-quarters of a mile of wheat fields and gullies away. He watched the executions, he said, using binoculars from his home and also from close range, as he tilled his fields.
The executions took place two or three times on most days, Arjawi said. Each time, between 100 and 150 blindfolded people, their hands and sometimes feet bound, were led into pits about 10 feet deep. Gunmen then fired into the pit, often for several minutes, Arjawi said. A bulldozer then pushed dirt onto the bodies, sometimes burying or crushing people who had survived the volley and were trying to climb out.
By Arjawi's estimate, nearly 6,000 people died here. Just two miles away, near a factory, is another site residents believe contains the remains of people executed, and another suspected site lies a few miles to the west, on the other side of town.
Although Arjawi's account could not immediately be corroborated, people here say everything he has told them so far -- including where to dig and what they would find -- has proved accurate.
Hillah residents say the victims were rounded up by private security forces employed by several local families. The families, who have since fled, earned the equivalent of a dollar or two for each person who was detained. Few, if any, were ever seen alive again, they said.
Competition between the families eventually drove down the price, several people said. It also prompted the families, they allege, to arrest people they knew had nothing to do with the rebellion; the bodies of Sunni Muslims, children, and residents of Egypt, Yemen and other countries have been found.
"Saddam wanted a body count to scare the people. They gave him a body count," said one man, who asked not to be named. "It was a race between these people so that Saddam would say, 'Great, you are a better executioner than him.' And all of them earned lots of money and bought many nice cars and farm equipment. They became rich."
Residents say a man named Mohammed Jawad Anaifus oversaw the arrests of thousands. Anaifus was named in a letter shown to the Los Angeles Times, in which a man seeking support from Saddam Hussein's regime cites Anaifus' role in purging rebels. People say Anaifus has fled the country.
As newly uncovered remains were identified Tuesday, a man with a white-and-yellow megaphone walked through the crowd of several hundred, calling the names.
"Fadel Badr Abdr Khadom. Mohammed Ahmed Aser. Ridah Mohammed Alwan, from the air force."