Babylon & Beyond

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IRAQ: Another day, another grave

December 15, 2008 |  8:04 am


Iraq may be the only country in the world that has declared a Mass Graves Day. It is observed every May 16, and for good reason. Rarely does a week go by without another mass grave being uncovered containing victims of either Saddam Hussein's regime or insurgents who surfaced in his wake.

The latest discovery came last week outside the southern city of Basra. Mehdi Tamimi, an Iraqi human rights official, said today that a grave containing 250 people apparently killed during Hussein's dictatorship is being excavated about 55 miles north of Basra.  About 100 of the victims have been identified so far.

Tamimi said there are signs "to suggest the existence of several other mass graves in the region." The most recently discovered victims are believed to be Shiites targeted by Hussein during the many mass roundups and executions of those he perceived as a threat to his Sunni-led regime or those he accused of siding with Shiite-led Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Kurds also were targeted, and thousands have been found in mass graves in southern Iraq, where they were moved en masse from their northern homeland and killed. Since Hussein's ouster, Sunnis also have fallen victim to insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, whose ghastly crime scenes are found regularly in former Sunni insurgent strongholds.

In November, a grave containing 23 bodies was discovered in Diyala province, north of Baghdad. The U.S. military said the victims had been dead about one year, meaning they were probably killed by Sunni insurgents who have long terrorized Diyala. In October, at least 44 people were found in two mass graves in the western province of Al Anbar, all believed to have been victims of Sunni insurgents who once held sway in the region.

A quick check of reports from Los Angeles Times correspondents across the country and U.S. military announcements indicated that at least 1,200 bodies have been found in mass graves across Iraq so far this year. The discoveries often occur as buildings shattered in the war are being renovated. In July, construction workers in the Al Anbar capital, Ramadi, were rebuilding a school when they discovered a slab of concrete in a classroom. They removed the slab to discover students' desk parts covering a hole. In the hole were the remains of 21 people missing for two years.

Abd Razaq Abd Malek, a displaced man who over the summer returned to his home outside of Baghdad, made a horrifying discovery. "I found my house damaged due to the battles. I started to rebuild it," he said. "During the repairing of the tiles, I was surprised because we found bodies buried inside one of the rooms." At least seven bodies were found beneath his floor.

Last October, Iraqi officials and human rights representatives held a conference on mass graves in Najaf, south of Baghdad. Among other things, they called on the United Nations to build museums and memorials at the U.N. to call attention to the victims found in mass graves across Iraq. They also urged artists and writers "to immortalize the tragedy in their art."

"We must not forget the past, so that the tragedy won't be repeated," the deputy prime minister, Barhem Salih, told the conference.

-- Times staff writers

Photo: Coffins draped in the flag of the self-governing Kurdistan region sit on the tarmac at an airport in the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, this month. The coffins contained remains of Kurds found murdered and dumped in a mass grave south of Baghdad. Credit: Kurdistan regional government