Investigators say Iraqi mass graves hold 300,000
BAGHDAD, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Iraqi and U.S. rights investigators said on Saturday they suspected Iraq had up to 260 mass graves containing the bodies of at least 300,000 people murdered by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
They told a conference that the task of identifying bodies and preparing evidence for tribunals could take years and millions of dollars, but the long process would be worth it to heal the wounds of three decades of brutal Baath Party rule.
"We have reports of 260 mass graves and we have confirmed approximately 40 of them," said Sandra Hodgkinson, director of the Coalition Provisional Authorityís (CPA) `mass grave action planí.
"We believe, based on what Iraqis have reported to us, that there are 300,000 dead and thatís the lower end of the estimates.
"In Bosnia itís now eight or nine years since similar atrocities and only 8,000 bodies out of 30,000 have been uncovered. Here in Iraq itís 300,000," said Hodgkinson, a human rights lawyer brought in by the CPA after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam in April. More sites could still be found.
The three-day conference aims to prepare Iraqi rights workers and officials of the Iraqi human rights ministry for the process of disinterring graves and convincing families that they should wait rather than rush to dig up bodies themselves.
Hodgkinson said only 11 of the 260 sites had been disturbed since the graves were first discovered in May, when distraught families frantically dug around for the remains of loved ones.
Iraqi officials, who will gradually take over control of the investigations, also called for patience.
"Iraq doesnít have the capability at present to do the work of investigation. The main task for the moment is how to protect the sites which have been opened," Human Rights Minister Abdel-Basset Turki told the meeting.
The U.S. military has footed the bill for satellite imaging to identify sites, but Turki said more money would be needed.
Iraqís Governing Council asked an international donor conference in Madrid last month for $100 million to be spent on equipment and manpower over the next five years, but Turki said little has been forthcoming yet.
A team of forensic experts will arrive in Iraq in January to begin work on up to 20 sites around the country where evidence will be collected for future trials of regime figures. Work to identify bodies has begun at the other 200-odd sites.
Investigators have identified six major crime periods: 1983 attacks on Kurds, a 1988 campaign against Kurds, chemical weapons attacks on Kurds 1986-88, the 1991 crushing of a southern Shiíite revolt, 1991 crushing of Kurdish insurrection, and crimes against all sectors of the population during the entire period of Baath rule.
Rafid al-Husseiny, a doctor who has led disinterring work at the Mahaweel site near Hilla south of Baghdad, is leading efforts to train Iraqis in the gravedigging process.
"Since May we have investigated a mass grave there of 3,115 people. We identified 2,115 bodies, which were reburied by their families," he said, stressing reconciliation among Iraqis.
"Iraqi citizens must look with both eyes, one looking to the future and one looking towards the past."
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