BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Investigators have discovered several mass graves in southern Iraq that are believed to contain the bodies of people killed by Saddam Hussein's government, including one estimated to hold 5,000 bodies, Iraqi officials say.
The graves, discovered over the past three months, have not yet been dug up because of the risks posed by the continuing insurgency and the lack of qualified forensic workers, said Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq's interim human rights minister. But initial excavations have substantiated the accounts of witnesses to a number of massacres.
If the estimated body counts prove correct, the new graves would be among the largest in the grim tally of mass killings that have gradually come to light since the fall of Saddam's government two years ago. At least 290 grave sites containing the remains of 300,000 people have been found since the U.S. invasion two years ago, Iraqi officials say.
Forensic evidence from some graves will feature prominently in the trials of Saddam and the leaders of his government. The trials are to start this spring.
One of the graves, near Basra, appears to contain about 5,000 bodies of Iraqi soldiers who joined a failed uprising against Saddam's government after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Another, near Samawa, is believed to contain the bodies of 2,000 members of the Kurdish clan led by Massoud Barzani.
As many as 8,000 men and boys from the clan disappeared in 1983 after being rounded up in northern Iraq by security forces at the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as Chemical Ali.
Investigators have also discovered the remains of 58 Kuwaitis spread across several sites, including what appears to be a family of two adults and five children who were crushed by a tank, Amin said.
At least 605 Kuwaitis disappeared at the time of the Gulf War, and before the latest graves were discovered, fewer than 200 had been accounted for, he added.
A smaller site was discovered near Nasiriyah earlier this week. Arabic satellite television showed residents digging up remains.
Amin declined to give the exact locations of the graves, saying it could endanger witnesses to the massacres and anyone working at the sites.
One obstacle to exhuming bodies has been an absence of DNA labs and forensic anthropologists in Iraq, Amin said.
In the aftermath of Saddam's fall, thousands of Iraqis overran mass-grave sites, digging for their relatives' remains with backhoes, shovels, even their bare hands.
A number of sites were looted, making identification of victims difficult, said Hanny Megally, Middle East director for the International Center for Transitional Justice.
The U.S. occupation authority, after some initial hesitation, began classifying grave sites, and international teams began traveling to the sites in 2003 to conduct assessments or exhumations.
But toward the end of 2004, rising violence led nearly all the teams to abandon their work.
By Robert F. Worth
New York Times