BAGHDAD — Perhaps they were so terrified they didn't trust the officers who demanded their identification cards and they hid the cards beneath layers of clothes.
Or maybe they sensed their horrible fate and decided against giving up the last legal proof of their lives before gunshots turned them into anonymous corpses to be devoured by the desert.
Whatever their reasons, more than 10% of the victims found thus far in Saddam Hussein-era mass graves managed to die with their Iraqi identity cards still with them. The phenomenon has dramatically altered the course of the investigation into the former regime's alleged crimes by allowing prosecutors to trace the victims back to their hometowns and construct more complete narratives of their harrowing journeys toward death.
"They had hidden them in secret pockets or sewn them in secret areas, especially the women," said Michael "Sonny" Trimble, a forensic archeologist who oversees a team exhuming and examining mass graves linked to the former regime, including from the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which Kurdish villagers were deported from their homes and later executed.
"They were coming from the north," said Trimble, who is attached to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "They were told they were being resettled. But they knew."
Trimble spoke Monday during the first media tour of the laboratories of the Mass Graves Team at the Regime Crimes Liaison Office, the law enforcement agency attached to the American Embassy that is helping an Iraqi court prosecute Hussein and his deputies on charges of human rights abuses.
The nine-tent compound on the outskirts of Baghdad includes an array of digital technology used to scan bones and map out gravesites and is staffed by international specialists in the art of resurrecting the lives and deaths of war crimes victims.
Team members say the women's successful efforts to keep their identity cards may foil the former regime's attempts to hide the killings and help Iraqi prosecutors win the upcoming Anfal trial, in which Hussein is accused of killing up to 180,000 Kurdish villagers.
"We can go back to the area where the identity cards were issued [and] we can find survivors," said Raid Juhi, chief investigative judge of the Iraqi High Tribunal, which will begin proceedings on the Anfal after Hussein's current trial ends. "We can find out about mechanisms and dates."
The laminated identification cards known as \o7g\f7\o7ensiya\f7 have already gone a long way in helping the Mass Graves Team prepare the Anfal case, officials said.
Unlike the trial of Hussein and seven deputies on charges of human rights abuses against the Shiite villagers of Dujayl, now in closing arguments, the Anfal case will focus primarily on forensic evidence amassed by Trimble and his team.
The discovery of the \o7gensiya\f7 allowed prosecutors to begin tying bodies to specific hometowns and surviving witnesses, who will be called upon to testify against Hussein.
Since starting operations in August 2004, Trimble has unearthed and dissected six mass grave sites in northwestern and southern Iraq. In all, the bodies of about 335 of the tens of thousands of victims believed to be buried in mass graves have been unearthed and analyzed.
Iraq's security woes have prevented the team from venturing out to all but the safest sites. Unlike human rights groups, Trimble searches only pristine gravesites to build up a criminal case instead of attempting to ascertain the full scope of the crimes.
Many of the largest mass grave sites have been damaged by relatives searching for loved ones, he said. Getting a total count of victims might take decades.
"For me, a sample of 75 people is enough," he said. "It's a matter of, Can we link the location to a possible event and a defendant? If the [grave] is disturbed, I don't want any part of it. From a crime-scene standpoint, it's the end of the world."
Tips from locals have pointed investigators in the direction of some gravesites.
For example, Bedouins tipped off U.S. Marines about a key Anfal site in Muthanna province near the southern city of Samawa shortly after the 2003 American-led invasion, a U.S. Embassy official said.
Using mapping software, Trimble's team creates a digital model of each site he examines, looking for geographic anomalies.
In the case of a Karbala gravesite unearthed in May, the search team spotted an "artificial rise," a classic indicator of a mass grave, amid the miles of undifferentiated desert terrain, said Mark Smith, an archeologist on the Mass Graves Team.
The scientists ascertain the size of a grave with test trenches. Backhoes remove the first layer of dirt, and then diggers get on their knees and carefully employ hand tools once they near the bodies. Often, the victims are buried under enormous volumes of sand and soil, what officials say were concerted efforts to erase the mass slayings from the pages of time.