Forensics experts unearthing the skeletons of Saddam Hussein's alleged victims have found an unexpected wealth of identification cards in mass graves, investigators said Monday.
As the ousted leader’s first trial winds down, the investigators say the discovery of the ID cards has been a pivotal development in a new case against Saddam — the 1980s military campaign that killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds.
The IDs showed that the bodies are those of Kurds and gave the investigators other crucial information such as the alleged victims' hometowns, where follow-up interviews could be conducted with survivors, they said.
“When we first started, we didn’t think we’d find any IDs,” said Michael “Sonny” Trimble, a 53-year-old forensic archaeologist from Missouri who is the director of the Iraqi Mass Graves Team.
“The focus changed. It was dramatic,” he said during a tour for reporters that offered the first glimpse of the forensic analysis facility on the outskirts of Baghdad.
“We went from let’s do the clothes and forensic analysis to let’s do the clothes, the bones can wait,” Trimble said.
Second trial for ‘Anfal’
Trimble and his team work at a laboratory in nine large tents, piecing together the stories of the people buried in mass graves around the country to provide evidence for future trials.
The defense is preparing to sum up its case next month in the trial against Saddam and seven co-defendants in the deaths of 148 people during a crackdown on a Shiite village.
Iraq’s High Tribunal also is preparing for a second trial charging Saddam with genocide in a 1980s military campaign against the Kurds. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in the campaign, known as “Anfal.”
Saddam has remained defiant, and chief defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi indicated his client believes he can bargain his way out of trials that could result in the death penalty.
Saddam thinks U.S. will seek his help
Al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press on Sunday that the former leader is the key to stability in Iraq and that Saddam believes the United States will have to seek his help to quell the insurgency.
“He’s their last resort. They’re going to knock at his door eventually,” al-Dulaimi said. Saddam is “the only person who can stop the resistance against the U.S. troops.”
There is no indication American officials have considered seeking Saddam’s help. While Sunni Arabs are the backbone of the insurgency, the Shiite Muslim majority and Kurds repressed by Saddam's regime would be enraged if he were allowed to re-enter public life.
Michael Flowers of the U.S. Regime Crimes Liaison Office said there are 180-222 grave sites around Iraq and that estimates of the number of people killed under Saddam range from 100,000 to 300,000. “It's impossible to get to them all,” he said.
Flowers and Trimble said forensics experts have to limit the number of remains recovered because of security concerns and the need to concentrate on gathering evidence that can be used in court.
“It’s more a matter of can we link this location to a specific event,” Flowers said. “A lot of these sites have been disturbed.”
‘That’s not my mission’
However, the investigators stressed the sites are marked for future humanitarian recovery.
“Anyone can look at a map later on and go and recover them for the families,” Trimble said. “That’s not my mission.”
When asked how many people were buried in mass graves, he said, “You won’t know that real answer until 25 years from now when human rights groups go out.”
David Hines, who compiles reports on the mass graves, noted that there is a site in southern Iraq where 114 people — mostly women and children — were found shot to death. Their remains, he said, make them posthumous witnesses.
“We take great pains not to lose sight that these are all people, these all have a story,” Hines said. “What we have is 114 cases of murder.”
The site, dubbed Muthanna 2, is at the center of the Anfal case, in which Kurds were told they were being relocated to the south but then were gathered into ravines and raked with gunfire.
Several of the women were pregnant and others collapsed while holding children. The skeletal hand of one woman was found in a baby blanket that also contained the remains of a baby.
Six graves evacuated in 2 years
Ariana Fernandes, a 31-year-old forensic anthropologist from Costa Rica who runs the tent where clothing and other items are processed, said many victims wore multiple layers of clothes and carried household goods.
The team, which includes archaeologists, pathologists, bone experts and photographers, has excavated six major graves in Iraq in nearly two years.
Trimble said about 12 percent of the individuals found so far had IDs, despite witness claims that Saddam's forces had demanded the documents. He said some women hid them in secret pockets or sewed them inside several layers of clothing.
“So from a criminal case standpoint I think we have a lot of very good data that the Iraq criminal justice system will use later on to present in court,” he said.
The chief investigative judge in Saddam Hussein’s trial, Raid Juhi, said the IDs were key to allowing investigators to go to the area where they were issued and collect witness accounts. “It gave us more evidence,” he said.
The latest dig is under way in the desert sands of southwestern Iraq, where at least two graves have been found containing victims from the suppression of a 1991 Shiite uprising after the Gulf War.