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Iraqis Search for Kin in Mass Graves

June 10, 2003

SALMAN PAK, Iraq (AP) _ They came in a blue minibus, an unlikely fivesome brought together by an unwanted bond _ Nasser Taleb and his sister Hala, two Kurdish men and a woman from the southern city of Basra, looking for clues among the dead.

They are travelers on a circuit of pain, crisscrossing Iraq and visiting mass graves in hopes of uncovering a shred of evidence, a glimmer of hope that one set of unearthed remains could solve the mystery of loved ones who disappeared during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

Their goal: to give their relatives religious burials in graves that will mark unjustly shortened lives.

``We are looking everywhere. It is as if we are drowning and searching for a straw to hold on to,″ said Hala Taleb, clad in a black chador and looking for her brother, for whom her ``heart is still burning.″

``Saddam has given us a nightmare. He is living free somewhere, but we’re still living the nightmare,″ she said Monday, her eyes watering.

The five first met Saturday at the suspected mass grave south of Baghdad. On Monday, they returned together in the minibus from Baghdad, still grieving, still determined.

Human rights groups say that in Iraq, a country of 24 million people, nearly 300,000 are missing. Some disappeared in the 1980s, when Saddam is believed to have ordered the detention of thousands of communists, rival members of his Baath Party and Shiite Muslim activists. Many were never heard from again.

More disappeared in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam’s army brutally suppressed twin revolts by Shiites and Kurds, in addition to Iraqis suspected of plotting against his regime, sympathizing with opposition groups or spying for foreign powers.

The discovery of mass graves, some of which contain hundreds of remains, began soon after the overthrow of Saddam’s regime in April. They are believed to number in the hundreds, although no reliable estimates are available.

Human Rights Watch says many that are found go unreported by relatives too preoccupied with finding their own missing.

Six sets of remains have been pulled from the Salman Pak site. Descriptions vary from bare bones to decomposed but complete bodies that suggest a burial date no later than two or three months ago.

One villager, Fadel Ali Fayad, said three bodies exhumed Sunday had flesh and that one wore army trousers. Others, including the Talebs, who witnessed the exhumation of bodies during the weekend, said some were clad in striped prison jumpsuits.

Another villager who declined to be named said rumors circulated of dozens of bodies hastily buried at the site in April _ possibly linked to Saddam’s intelligence services, or to a nearby bombed-out camp of an elite Republican Guard division.

If confirmed, such theories lend credence to unconfirmed reports in early April that hardcore Saddam loyalists in the army and intelligence services executed deserters and suspected spies as American forces approached.

Hala Taleb and the woman from Basra, Kareema Kazim Abdullah, were overwhelmed by emotion soon after their arrival Monday at Iraq’s latest mass grave site, a sand field in a remote village near Salman Pak.

Weeping and pounding their heads with their hands _ a mourning gesture common among some Arab women _ they walked across the field to the site, marked by two lines of sand mounds, the work of a bulldozer that dug the grave.

Once there, they knelt on the ground, scooping sand with bare hands and scattering it as they wept. Taleb’s brother, Nasser, later helped his sister up and walked her to the minibus. She sat on the ground, leaning against the car and staring.

Their brother, Hafez Taleb, was 27 when Saddam’s agents arrested him in 1992.

``His only crime is that he was a pious Muslim,″ said Nasser Taleb, 24. Saddam had little tolerance for religious fundamentalism.

Taleb says he and his sister are relying on word of mouth and the media for news of new mass graves.

``We go where we think we have a chance to find his body,″ he said.

Abdullah’s loss was twofold. A brother, Gawad, disappeared in 1991, and Falah Hussein Hashem, her 20-year-old son, was reported in 1998 to have killed himself during military service. Yet when she received his body, she said, it had two bullet wounds _ to the head and chest.

On Monday, the bulldozer did not show up and the Talebs, Abdullah and the two Kurdish men _ seeking a missing brother and a missing nephew _ climbed back into the bus and left.

They said they would be back the next day.

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