BAGHDAD — Two mass graves that appear to contain the remains of as many as 7,000 people killed by Saddam Hussein's government have been discovered in southern Iraq, an Iraqi government minister said Friday.
The new government may use the finds to help build its case against alleged war criminals, including Hussein, Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said.
Iraqi officials said they had been unable to excavate the burial grounds found this year because of security concerns and because Iraq lacks forensic workers. Amin said several of his investigators recently had visited the sites and calculated the number of bodies by surveying the contours of the graves and interviewing witnesses to the burials.
The larger of the grave sites is in a deserted area near the southern port city of Basra, where Hussein's Sunni Muslim-led Baathist government waged a brutal campaign to suppress a Shiite Muslim uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Amin said the remains of 5,000 people involved in the uprising might be buried there.
He said the rest of the bodies were found in Samawa, a lightly populated area in southern Iraq.
"We have found about 2,000 remains in the Samawa area of the family of Massoud Barzani," Amin said, referring to the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the most powerful Kurdish organizations in Iraq. Barzani also was a longtime leader of a guerrilla movement against Hussein.
Hussein's army detained 8,000 of Barzani's clansmen in their homeland in northern Iraq in 1983, and they were never heard from again.
If the ministry's estimates are correct, the two mass graves would be among the largest of 290 burial sites reportedly found in Iraq since the American-led invasion in 2003. Iraqi human rights investigators estimate that 600,000 to 1 million people disappeared during Hussein's rule.
Amin said a relatively small number of remains would need to be exhumed to build war crimes tribunal cases against former Baathists accused of mass murder. But he said identifying the bodies also would be cathartic for the families of victims.
The most recent discoveries developed over several weeks early this year, Amin said, after witnesses to the mass burials came forward to speak to human rights officials.
"We first heard about it in January and started taking photos of the site, and we have come to the conclusion that we have about 5,000 graves," Amin said of the site near Basra. "We base this on the land that has been changed, and we have spoken to witnesses."
Amin said that preliminary investigation of the sites had confirmed witnesses' statements.
John Pace, head of the United Nations Human Rights Office for Iraq, said there could be even more bodies inside the graves.
"Some graves contain multiple layers of bodies, so they might contain more remains than the surface area might indicate," Pace said.
Investigators have found other mass graves around Iraq in recent days in the vicinity of Kirkuk, Sulaymaniya, Halabja and Nasiriya.
At Nasiriya, authorities said they had to stop residents from exhuming the bodies themselves. Before they were halted, amateur excavators found the remains of 25 people, Amin said.
There have been several recent discoveries along the borders with Iran and Kuwait as well, Amin said.
With only 20 trained forensic pathologists in Iraq, officials have depended on help from neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait.
Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1991 and has a special interest in finding the remains of its citizens.
No more than a third of 605 Kuwaitis who disappeared during the Gulf War have been accounted for, Amin said.
Fear of insurgent attacks also has made it difficult to work in the remote areas where burial sites are usually found.
Pace said he was consulting with Iraq's Human Rights Ministry on legislation and the creation of a government agency to protect the sites and provide resources to excavate them properly.
Also on Friday, a U.S. military spokesman announced that two American soldiers had died in fighting near Fallouja, one on Wednesday, the other on Thursday.
No further details were released.