By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 5, 2003; Page A01
HILLA, Iraq, May 4 -- Iraqis began breaking years of frightened silence over the location of mass graves today, directing U.S. troops and neighbors with relatives who vanished during the rule of Saddam Hussein to two dusty pits holding scores of human remains.
Near the city of Najaf and in this farming town 60 miles south of Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqis frantic for information about relatives missing for more than a decade began excavating graves previously known only to a few townspeople. Digging gingerly with spades and hands, they began pulling from the ground skulls stained brown after years in the earth, bits of clothing and sets of false teeth.
More than 80 sets of remains were unearthed at the two sites, including those of women and children, and the number was climbing as darkness came. But international human rights workers, who say Hussein left scores of mass graves during 24 years in power, worried that the amateur search would destroy forensic evidence essential to identifying victims and recording the government's crimes.
At a sun-scorched plot near a mosque on the edge of this city, Mohammed Abed arrived with a shovel at midday to begin searching. He was looking for the remains of three brothers he had not seen since the town's large Shiite population rose up against Hussein after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The uprising was encouraged by the U.S. government, which promised support that never materialized.
Like many here, Abed heard of the grave only the day before, after a Hilla man guided the region's governor and U.S. troops to a mound that he had known for more than a decade held the body of his son. Picking away at a small hill, Abed bent occasionally to remove chunks of bone from the ground. But he could not identify what he was finding.
"I'm hoping I might recognize some clothes because what else can I do, really?" said Abed, with dust coloring his dark hair a shade of gray. "Otherwise, all I'm seeing is a pile of bones."
The discoveries come as Iraqis search government archives, military bases and grave sites seeking to learn the fate of thousands of people who disappeared into Hussein's security apparatus. Already Iraqis have dug up large graveyards holding scores of his victims, identified only by numbered grave markers, and Kurdish groups have unearthed at least one mass grave near the northern city of Kirkuk.
The graves that emerged today are among the first of what will likely be hundreds, according to human rights groups that have arrived in Iraq since the collapse of Hussein's government on April 9. Human Rights Watch, based in New York, has estimated that 200,000 Iraqis disappeared during Hussein's rule, with many of them likely ending up in secret graves.
Like the millions of Iraqi security files surfacing haphazardly across Baghdad, however, the mass graves pose a challenge to human rights investigators hoping to keep a careful record of the discoveries. Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said it was understandable that Iraqis were exhuming graves on their own after decades without word of missing relatives.
Bouckaert said that Human Rights Watch would probably continue to search until it receives assurances that professional investigators intend to exhume the bodies, chart the findings and identify victims to the greatest extent possible. The organization has called on U.S. forces to protect the graves while forensic teams are organized for an investigation that may dwarf those that followed the recent wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He said the group knows of many far larger mass graves "all over Iraq," but it is waiting until forensic investigators are in place before announcing them.
"Otherwise, this digging will only damage the evidence," Bouckaert said.
In many Iraqi towns, especially those populated by the country's majority Shiites, who were oppressed by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, only a few fearful townspeople appear to have been aware of the burial pits, even those like the one here just a few miles from town.
In Hilla, a town of 50,000 people set among palm groves near the ancient city of Babylon, the grave across from the green dome of Al-Bakr Mosque was Jabbar Kareem's secret.
Hilla's large Shiite population rose up for two weeks in March 1991 as part of a national uprising against Hussein's rule. Demonstrators clashed with government security forces in the streets, and many were killed before the military brought the town to heel on March 17.
Far more vanished over the ensuing weeks as Hussein's security services moved house to house searching for protesters and hauling those they found to a nearby prison. Most never returned. Hilla residents say Hussein Kamil, the president's bodyguard and son-in-law, supervised many of the imprisonments and executions.
Five of Kareem's eight sons were killed or disappeared during those weeks, including 21-year-old Mohie, who was shot dead during the demonstrations. The military took Mohie's body to the morgue where it was kept along with dozens of others for two months.
During that time, Kareem, a devout Muslim, searched for Mohie's body to give him a proper funeral. By then, security agents had hauled off four other sons and thrown the whole family in jail for five days while pursuing the uprising's leaders. The sons have never returned.
Kareem bribed a military official, who told him about the grave near the Al-Bakr Mosque. He went that night, carrying a shovel, but was arrested by security agents who did not believe his explanation that he was heading to the mosque. He spent five months in jail and was forced to sign a pledge not to return to the grave.
Other townspeople were suspicious of the site, a dirt plain bordered by a swampy canal and a distant palm grove. A guard posted there would tell passersby it was a "heritage site."
"Sometimes there would be a man who pretended to be crazy, just standing by the place," said Abed Ali, a 37-year-old driver visiting the swarming site today. "But we knew he was a security agent."
Kareem, whose house was watched by the government for many of those years, found ways to visit the grave.
"Every month I went to check it," said Kareem, who informed the Hilla governor and U.S. troops about the grave Saturday. He was sure, he said, that he would find Mohie there.
Today, he took away Mohie's remains, wrapped in the green-and-white striped blanket the military official told him to look for years ago. A three-day funeral commemoration has been planned.
But many others have had less luck. Clothes have become sticky brown clumps over the years, rendering them nearly useless for identification.
The scene today was a swirl of weeping women in billowing black robes and men digging, all careful to avoid trampling piles of bones in two neat rows in a pit that grew throughout the day.
A tiny green dress rested on bones the size of twigs, set on a brown cloth. Next to it sat a larger pile that belonged to the child's mother. An infant's bones rested on the next cloth, stained a deep chocolate brown. Other victims were older. An intact set of false teeth sat atop one pile, gathering dust in the warm breeze.
Many of the skulls had been sawed open. Small clumps of hair and faded plastic identification bracelets sat inside each one. A series of mounds beyond the first graves may hold more victims.
Rasmia Jasim's 12-year hunt for eight relatives, including two brothers and a son, brought her to the pit today from the village of Hashmia, 12 miles to the east, where a man passed through the mosques on Saturday announcing the discovery of a large grave.
"We are looking for an identification card, some clothes, anything," Jasim said, peering down on a knee-high pile of bones. "I am very confused."