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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Office of War Crimes Issues > Releases > Remarks, Briefings, Testimony > 2004

Iraq's Mass Graves

Andrew S. Natsios, Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development
Washington, DC
July 22, 2004

When Saddam Hussein was plucked from his spider hole, unkempt and disoriented, he seemed an oddly insignificant figure. But make no mistake, the "butcher of Baghdad" and his sons have few rivals when it comes to megalomania, rapacity, terror, sadism, infanticide, and widespread murder.

A picture of life in Saddam's regime is emerging from victims, witnesses, even reluctant executioners, who are slowly coming forward with their stories now that Saddam has been found and put away. They tell tales of torture, live burnings, and indiscriminate slaughter that they witnessed either directly or through slits in blindfolds. Some talk of being buried alive and abandoned as dead - to live a life in terror and hiding.

Over the past decade and a half, I have seen the aftermath of the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the death pits in Rwanda. I can attest to Saddam's tenure as President of Iraq as being equally savage and murderous.

Since Saddam's regime was overthrown, 270 mass graves have been reported. To date, 53 sites have been confirmed. Some graves contain six bodies; some a score or more. Others are trenches, hundreds of meters long, densely packed with thousands of victims. Hundreds of white bundles contain the bones exhumed from these sites and they line warehouse floors row upon row. Some were fresh victims; others have lain in their graves for over 35 years.

They contain the remains of Shiites, murdered for their beliefs. They contain the remains of Kurds, murdered for their ethnicity. They contain the remains of Sunnis who dared speak out against the tyranny or were suspected of being insufficiently "Baathist." They contain the remains of Kuwaitis, and other victims of Saddam's aggressive wars. They contain the remains of Bahrainis, Egyptians, and Saudis, killed by one who presented himself as the spokesman of Arab solidarity and avatar of Arab renaissance.

The methods of execution were grisly. Victims are being exhumed with hands lashed together and bullet holes in the back of their skulls. Women and children are being found executed in similar fashion. This butcher did not respect gender or age, motherhood or the innocence of children. He is even reported to have killed over 40 members of his own family.

The whole arsenal of methods employed by previous architects of genocide was employed in Saddam's death machine.

  • From 1983 to 1988, during the Iran/Iraq War, chemical attacks by Saddam's army resulted in 30,000 Iraqi and Iranian deaths. This broke a taboo that had existed since World War I and the horrors of trench warfare.
  • From 1987-1988, during Saddam's campaign of terror in the North, an estimated 180,000 Kurds were rounded up and systematically killed.
  • In 1988, five thousand Iraqi-Kurds in 40 villages were killed in a single day, the victims of nerve and mustard gas.
  • The so-called Anfal campaign was part of a broad strategy that intended to destroy the ancestral homes and habitats of Kurds. Over 2,000 mountain villages were razed in Saddam-style pograms.
  • The Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, who had maintained a unique way of life since Biblical times, were victims of a similar fate last decade. Primarily Shias, they were feared as "resistants" beyond the reach of Saddam's henchmen in their watery habitats. He systematically drained the marshes and forced half of their population - approximately 200,000 - to seek refuge in Iran.
    • The marsh lands have been linked to the Garden of Eden and Noah's flood. Their destruction has been called an unprecedented "eco-cide," a new weapon in the arsenal of 20th century tyrants, one Saddam pioneered at the end of the first Gulf War when he torched his oil wells and massively dumped pollutants into the Gulf.
  • In October 1991, Iraqi leaders were privately acknowledging that 250,000 people were killed during the Shia uprisings that followed Desert Storm.

Some Western Human Rights Groups have argued that atrocities on a mass scale ended in 1991 with the end of the Gulf War. This is not true. In terms of lost lives, Saddam's death machine stepped up the assault on his enemies using more subtle forms.

Within 1-2 years of the war, Iraq had repaired its water and sewerage systems. But the death rate among children soared, in large part because clean water was not evenly provided to the Iraqi people. Filthy water is the major cause of under 5 mortality in Iraq. This is one of many reports about how Saddam used sanctions as a cover for an insidious effort to kill off the children of groups opposed to him: Kurds, Marsh Arabs, and Shia.

In effect, while pursuing his genocidal campaign most systematically, he was building sympathy in the West for relaxing its sanctions. His victims no longer needed to be buried clandestinely in the night. After 1991, it was in his interest to broadcast death in Iraq and blame it on Washington and London.

Tapes of Ali Hassan Al-Majid - "Chemical Ali" - have emerged and he should certainly be among the first on the docket of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. He was caught boasting about the Kurd massacre. "That evening I went to Suleimaniyeh and hit them with special ammunition [chemical weapons]. I told the mustashars that they might say they like their villages and that they won't leave. I said I cannot let your villages stay because I will attack it with chemical weapons. Then you and your family will die. You must leave right now. Because I cannot tell you the same day that I am going to attack with chemical weapons. I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? The international community? ---- them! The international community and those who listen to them." The person speaking is kith and kin of Saddam, cut from the same cloth as Uday and Qusay.

Sloan Mann was one of the first to follow Iraqis to the mass grave sites. He was dispatched to Iraq as part of the first deployment of Abuse Prevention Units, created by USAID to protect human rights in emergencies or conflicts. I would briefly like to share with you some of the reasoning behind the creation of the Abuse Prevention Unit and how it came to operate in Iraq.

The Abuse Protection Unit was designed to make human rights protection operational in the post-conflict situation where they are most vulnerable. It played to the particular strength of my Agency, our field staffs, which are accustomed to operate among indigenous peoples in some of the most dangerous places in the world.

Our particular fears in Iraq were widespread reprisals of Shia and Kurds against Sunnis. We also feared that the chaos from the passing of the old order might be used as a cover to settle scores in tribal feuds as well as personal vendettas. Vengeance would likely lead to increased instances of rape and looting. And this would lead to countermeasures of the same kind as well as vigilantism.

The Abuse Protection Unit was to be the eyes and ears of my Agency, the U.S. Military, and the CPA in tracking the actual outbreak of human rights abuses and identifying potential outbreaks. They canvassed hospitals, clinics, and popular haunts. They interviewed the military as well as the people in the street.

Sloan Mann recounts how his task evolved. There were reprisals and violations of person and property - but nothing systemic, he reported. Significantly, he credits local clerics, among others, for keeping a damper on the violence.

His street excursions took him to a nondescript building with a nondescript office, outside of which was a curiously long line. Inside was the Iraqi Lawyers Association. Working without computers, they were collecting paper evidence of missing Iraqis. The Lawyers Association led Sloan Mann to Saddam's killing fields.

"When I showed up," reports Sloan, "people were randomly digging through the site. I went there two days after the mass grave was discoveredů.The site was very disturbed. Children walked barefoot in the grave. There were many families. Some were mourning. Some were curious onlookers."

The Coalition Provisional Authority was initially criticized for permitting such things. The most vocal were some of the groups that are quickest to invoke the words "rights" and "humanity." They, I suppose, would have wanted us to police and discipline these people at this moment.

We were literally witnessing modern pietas, grieving mothers cradling the remains of a lost son. Humanity requires deference to such grief first and foremost. We are engaging Iraqis to develop ways to allow access to the evidence of these crimes against humanity that does not compromise the grief of a mother.

The CPA authorized Sloan and other US officials to help Iraqis exhume their loved ones. The Abuse Protection Unit used approximately $300 dollars out of the score of small grants allotted them to buy shovels and wheel barrels. This was received by the desperate Iraqis as a godsend. They had hitherto been forced to use their bare hands, kitchen utensils, and household buckets in the exhumation process. Sloan confesses to be being equally overcome by the outpouring of grief as well as the gratitude he witnessed.

These Iraqis are desperate that what happened to them be known so that they get some vindication for what they suffered. This is why we published the pamphlet on Mass Graves and have invited the survivors to speak to you today.

CPA's Office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice led the effort to develop a process to help Iraqis to address the crimes of the former regime, working in close collaboration with USAID, the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division, scores of NGOs and human rights groups, as well as indigenous Iraqi groups such as the Free Prisoners Association, the Iraqi Lawyers Association, and the Hillah Human Rights Association. The President recently established a Regime Crimes Liaison Office in Baghdad under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice that is taking the lead on war crimes issues post-CPA.

Iraqi, U.S., and British foreign aid officials have prepared a plan for a long term process of excavation that will meet the needs of judicial fact-gathering in ways that are culturally sensitive. Iraqis with skills in anthropology or archaeology are being invited to receive advanced training by international forensic experts. They will join other professionals and follow exhumation protocols and nationwide standard operating procedures in such matters.

USAID has provided more than 100 small grants worth more than $5 million in support of human rights and transitional justice in Iraq. We have funded newly formed local human rights organizations to organize and collect documents, evidence, and the names of the missing. But we have also funded women's organizations, student organizations, athletes' and artists' organizations, and organizations of the disabled-the kinds of organizations that give voice to the voiceless and contribute to a strong, healthy civil society, in which empowered citizens make their concerns heard by those who govern them. A strong, healthy civil society that will not tolerate abuses like those of the Ba'athist regime.

This $5 million includes $2 million in support of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. We are renovating and furnishing office spaces for the Tribunal. We have provided the necessary assistance to develop a computer database for the investigation of Baathist crimes against humanity, and a centralized complex of investigators' offices, a secure evidence repository, archival processing and storage facilities, forensic training and equipment. The Danes, Finns, Germans, and Swedes have joined these efforts with contributions of their own resources and expertise.

I would like to conclude my remarks today by making several additional points, to put human rights into a developmental and reconstruction context.

  • Saddam's crimes must be documented and addressed to bring closure to the pain and grief of the Iraqi people. A measure of justice must be brought to the families of victims. This is perhaps their greatest "need." It will provide a small degree of relief from the burdens of the past that will allow them to face the future. We may begin to salvage a portion of their lives in what will surely be better times for their nation.
  • Families cannot get on with their lives until they know what happened to their loved ones. Many women are not remarrying because they don't know for certain that their husbands are dead.
  • Iraqis are asking why no one outside Iraq cares about what Saddam did to them. This causes resentment. We must let these victims' voices be heard so that the wounds of the atrocities can begin to heal. We have seen in other societies that when the truth is suppressed, resentment can boil over into violence and chaos years later. Rage will build if the Iraqi's demand for justice is not acknowledged.
  • Consider, also, that some of the perpetrators are still walking the streets. Many are dangerous murderers who are the same people now fomenting violence with the intent of destabilizing the new Iraq.
  • Without justice, there is a greater likelihood such things might happen again. Elemental justice requires we address Saddam's crimes, both to appease the righteous indignation of the victim and to deter future violators.
  • A spokesman for the Iraqi Human Rights Association put things very well when he said that what Iraq needs most of all is "not technicians and engineers" - "but someone to rebuild our souls." This is "reconstruction" of wholly different sort and it can be greatly aided by what we are doing today.

I heartily endorse the decision to have Iraqi tribunals sit in judgment. There must be no accusations that this is a "victor's justice" being imposed from the outside or above, according to the standards of another "civilization." Judgments from such a court will have the greatest chance of being accepted by the families victimized by Saddam and by Iraqis generally. This will involve a collective soul-searching that is the most important exercise in nation building.

Make no mistake. This is a test for the Iraqis and there are pitfalls. We have learned in situations like these that accurate memories of the past are difficult to come by. There are some that do not want to remember. They do not want to permanently stain the record of history with a condemnation of their people. There are others that will resist the tribunal because they were involved directly in the crimes or were complicit with them. But the test is worth taking and the risks worth running.

In a very real sense, the dead too can be "heard" in these tribunals. We work to uncover and preserve these "mass graves" so that these Iraqis may also finally have a measure of justice, so that history can fully document what took place during the reign of Saddam, so that, hopefully, we can finally draw a close on an era of genocidal murderers, like Saddam Hussein.

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