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Iraqis uncover graves of civilians
KHAN AL-RUBEA, Iraq -- Haidar Mohammed al-Atwan was 29 years old when he was blindfolded, tied up and shot in the back of the head following a failed Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Sabah Amir Mohammed al-Tamimi was 19. So was Amna Ali.
Their remains, complete with ID cards, were dug up with the bodies of 69 others Saturday and Sunday from a shallow mass grave about 13 miles northwest of Najaf, one of Shiite Muslims' holiest cities. Bullet casings also were found in and near the graves.
Iraqis exhumed bodies with shovels and their bare hands, and they expected to find more. Others were searching the area around Najaf for additional mass grave sites they believe are in the area. At least one smaller site, guarded by U.S. Marines, turned up a few miles away.
"This is the tip of the iceberg in this country," said Marine Capt. Mike Urena. "I am sure you will find more."
More than 25 bodies were unearthed Saturday, and at least 10 had been identified, local Iraqis said. About 47 sets of remains, including those of women, were uncovered Sunday. The men and women were apparently lined up and shot.
It was unclear how many bodies were buried, but several mounds were visible dotting the flat farmland -- mounds that U.S. Marines said could mark additional gravesites.
Looking for relatives
"I'm looking for my relatives," said Jawad Shaker, searching the site. Another person said he was searching for a nephew who disappeared in 1991.
Human rights groups have said they believe Iraq is dotted with mass graves, many containing what they say could be victims of Saddam's various purges, retribution and crushing of any opposition to his absolute power. Access to such sites was prohibited before Saddam's government fell.
"Everybody knew and could see, but they kept quiet," said Kamel al-Tamimi, a farmer. "We were told to stay away from this area, not to go near it, that it was a security zone."
The large grave being excavated Sunday, residents said, was linked to the Shiite uprising that took place after the 1991 Gulf War. Shiites seized control of most of Iraq's south, and Saddam's armed forces used helicopter gunships and tanks to defeat the lightly armed rebels.
Thousands of people are believed to have been executed after the failed revolt. Shiites, a minority in the Islamic world, make up 60 percent of Iraq's Muslims and were ruled for a generation by Saddam's overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Baath Party.
For many residents of the Najaf area, that excruciating saga of more than a decade ago is being brought home painfully now that Saddam's regime has gone and they are free to search once-forbidden parts of the landscape for their missing.
On Sunday, as five people dug away at the site, a farmer who refused to give his name said he saw people blindfolded, their hands tied behind them, and shot in the back of the head after the 1991 uprising.
A few miles away, Marines guarded another site where two bodies and four bullet casings were found. A red keffiyah was wrapped around the eyes of one skull. Some bodies -- including those of al-Atwan, al-Tamimi and Ali -- had identification cards in their pockets.
Al-Atwan's remains and others found during the weekend were wrapped in white shrouds after they were dabbed in sand, a Muslim ritual. Plastic bags tied to the shrouds contained some of the dead's belongings.
Names that had been handwritten in ink on most of the identity cards had faded, though some had photos still stapled to the cards.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim group, was directing the excavation of the site and said it was preparing a special section of a cemetery for what it called the "Martyrs of the 1991 Uprising."
Later Sunday, the Marines handed over control of their site to the Iraqi Unity Association, led by U.S.-appointed Gov. Abdel-Monem Abboud.
Before they left, the troops barred local farmers and Supreme Council representatives from approaching the mass graves. Marine Cpl. Sean O'Meara assured onlookers that special care would be taken to ensure Muslim law is followed at the site, but many were angry nonetheless.
"Islam dictates that the remains of one person should not be mixed with those of others when they are buried. We take good care of the remains, just like they take care when they dig archaeological ruins," Abu Mujahed, a farmer, complained as he stood a few yards away from a guarded grave.
"They are not letting us see our relatives," he said. "My cousin is there. We prefer to dig them ourselves. We can identify them, from their clothes. We know how to get the remains out intact."