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Sorrow Unearthed With Remains

As more mass graves are identified and dug up, anger and dark memories are rekindled for many Iraqis. One group lists 150 sites.

May 26, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MUSSAYEB, Iraq — Inside the former youth hall of this central Iraqi town, a grim harvest is on display. Three hundred and thirty-two small, white parcels, each carefully numbered, are laid out in long, neat rows on the floor.

Inside are bones, clothing and belongings taken from a mass grave in the desert about 10 miles northwest of here.

The youth hall, taken over by religious authorities and made into an Islamic cultural center since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, is now the central clearinghouse for human remains for this area -- the place where relatives come to try to learn the fate of sons, daughters, parents, brothers, sisters, spouses or cousins who disappeared as Hussein vanquished the uprising against him in March 1991.

Such scenes are being repeated across broad swaths of central and southern Iraq. The discovery of a huge mass grave north of Hillah, near the village of Mahaweel, containing at least 3,000 sets of remains two weeks ago has been accompanied by the uncovering of dozens more smaller graves in places such as Mussayeb, Karbala and Habbaniyah.

No one knows how many people were killed in all -- Amnesty International has said it has records of 17,000 missing -- but the scale and the often-random nature of the killing of Shiites after the 1991 rebellion against the government provokes sorrow and rage to this day.

In almost every small town and village in this region, families long forced to keep silent about the loss of loved ones are holding funerals and memorials, immersing themselves in their grief rather than celebrating the death of the regime that caused it.

The culture of mourning also has a political aspect as the foundations are being laid for the new, post-Hussein Iraq: Shiites, who comprise the majority of Iraqis, are being reminded of their shared suffering at the hands of the largely Sunni-led Baathists.

The more militant clerics win followers by demanding justice for and retribution against the Baath Party activists and former officials of Hussein's security apparatus who carried out the killings, fueling demands for an Islamic government.

And the relatives, weeping and keening over their dead from 12 years ago, often do not spare the United States from blame -- saying that it was the first President George Bush's abandonment of the insurgents after the Persian Gulf War that allowed the massacres to take place.

The leading Shiite opposition group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been in the forefront of finding and excavating mass graves. It says it has a list of 150 grave sites identified so far, many of which still must be opened.

The Iraqi National Congress, another group that opposed Hussein's regime in exile and now is vying for a voice in an interim government, also is helping to find graves. It has pointed U.S. and Kuwaiti authorities to a mass grave in Habbaniyah, now being excavated, where remains are being examined to see if any can be traced to up to 600 Kuwaiti prisoners of war killed in 1991.

Since mid-May, at least 14 new grave sites have been identified, according to INC spokesman Entifahd Qanbar, a number that he called "the tip of the iceberg, with many more to come."

In Mussayeb, a small market town on the Euphrates River about 40 miles southwest of Baghdad, the mosque that dominates the central square was the scene of nonstop funerals last week.

Its outer wall was covered with black flags and small posters showing the faces of the victims killed or missing in the massacres.

Townspeople crowded around to read the names of those whose remains had been identified during exhumations from the mass grave at a nearby desert area known as Jurf al Sakhar.

At about 5 p.m. Wednesday, Haider Suweifi was attending a funeral for his cousin, Yassin, killed in 1991 when he was 25. The remains had been found at the Jurf al Sakhar site the day before, identified by the clothing and a driver's license still inside his pocket.

"It is better than others, who cannot find their kin," said Suweifi, emerging briefly from the crowded mosque to speak to a reporter. "We are lucky."

At the cultural center, where a small group of clerics and community volunteers kept watch over the exhumed remains, the bags lying on the floor were being picked through in the dim light by relatives hoping to find loved ones. One man used a cigarette lighter to illuminate the parcels one by one, while a woman who had found the remains of her son sobbed quietly in one corner.

Hassan Shikarchi, an organizer for the INC, said many of the victims at Jurf al Sakhar were from a group of men ordered by megaphone to assemble at an intersection on the outskirts of town in mid-March 1991. The townspeople had rebelled against Hussein, but government forces had just regained control. Once at the intersection, he said, the men found the street lined with military vehicles, soldiers and armed Baath Party volunteers.

They were divided into groups seemingly at random. One group of about 400 was loaded onto buses, taken away and immediately shot, he believes, while the rest were sent to various prisons.

"I don't know how I escaped," said Shikarchi, who ended up in Baghdad's Rashid prison, where he was tortured with knives and cattle prods, he said, but eventually managed to buy his freedom after 40 days.

Seyyid Adil, another person working at the center, said that often it is only clothing or rings that identify remains. Among those killed, he said, were many soldiers who had fought for Iraq in the war with Iran and the Gulf War. He said they were killed for one reason only.

"They were Shia and they loved Hussein," he said, a reference not to Saddam Hussein but to the prophet Muhammad's grandson, who is revered by Shiites.

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