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Kurds say grave proves ethnic killing

Kurdish officials say they have found a mass grave that holds hundreds of civilian victims of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, but so far lack the forensic analysis to prove it.
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Kurdish officials say they have found a mass grave that holds hundreds of civilian victims of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, though the same officials and a U.S. military officer cautioned that extensive forensic analysis will be needed to confirm the claim.

THE GRAVESITE is near a former Iraqi military base recently bombed by American warplanes. Row upon row of burial mounds buttress against cultivated farmland. All the graves are unmarked. The claim that the site was the final resting place of Kurdish victims of Saddam’s violent rule could not be independently verified.

Iraq’s minority Kurdish population has seen more than 100,000 of its people disappear during the Iraqi leader’s three decades in power. Now that Saddam’s regime has collapsed and Iraq’s borders are open, Kurdish officials say they hope to find information on the tens of thousands of missing Kurds. “Perhaps this will finally give the Kurds some peace and closure,” said Shawaw Askri, an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the leading Kurdish political parties.


Askri said two bodies had been removed from the gravesite — those of a man and a woman. The presence of a woman, Askri suggested, meant that the bodies were those of civilians. Askri said the grave was brought to the attention of the Kurdish leadership by a man who said he helped dig shallow holes for the bodies in 1989. The gravedigger wished to remain anonymous, he said.

InsertArt(2009422)If the bodies are those of civilian victims, their fate would be consistent with Saddam’s campaign to systematically destroy Kurdish villages beginning in 1988. It was during this period that tens of thousands of Kurds, long opposed to Saddam’s rule, disappeared.

The closest village to the gravesite, Tabzawa, was among the first targeted by the Iraqi leader’s ethnic cleansing policies.

Tabzawa lies in ruins today. Askri cautioned that forensic analysis — currently unavailable in postwar northern Iraq — would be needed to determine the cause of death of those buried in the site, about 10 miles west of Kirkuk, the capital of Kurdish ancestral lands in northern Iraq. “We do not have the capability to perform these kinds of tests,” he said.


American civil affairs officers, called in by the Kurds, watched over the suspected gravesite on Thursday. They, too, said they lacked forensic expertise. “We surveyed the site and we will report it,” said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “At this point, it’s too early to tell what this is.”

The officer said the gravesite most likely would be left unguarded, because U.S. troops in the Kirkuk region were “stretched thin” with other operations, including maintaining civil order in a region where ethnic tensions among Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs are running high.

Although Kurds are eager to find concrete proof of Saddam’s murderous campaign against them, they agreed that the gravesite raised more questions than it answered. For instance, the bodies at the site were buried individually rather than in a single grave. If the Iraqi government was responsible for the deaths, no great effort was made to disguise the location, where hundreds of burial mounds were visible above ground. The careful layout of the burial mounds also could not be explained. “We believe all these questions will be answered by independent experts,” said Baghat Raouf, an information officer for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. “We believe we will find all our missing relatives.”’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iraq.