SALMAN PAK, Iraq - As survivors desperate for news of missing relatives looked on, a big yellow backhoe methodically cut a trench in the sandy dirt, bringing up two more bodies yesterday.
It was a small recovery for a hot morning's work, but it did not deter Sheik Khadim Fartousi, leader of an Islamic charity, who told reporters that they were standing on a mass grave - the site where some of the last executions of political prisoners of Saddam Hussein's regime took place.
Fartousi said four busloads of political prisoners were brought to this area near the infamous Salman Pak training camp and chemical weapons facility and executed in April, only five days before U.S. forces took nearby Baghdad. Information about the executions came from witnesses and former employees of the Iraqi intelligence service, he said.
Fartousi, whose organization is called Al Walah, or Loyalty, said seven bodies had been revealed in two days of work, and he expected to find others in the brown mottled earth in the immediate vicinity.
"You could hear the shooting," said Mustafa Saad, an 18-year-old who lives in the area. "It happened during a dust storm."
According to Saad and other townspeople, buses laden with prisoners drove along the dirt track that runs along the Tigris River here. When the buses came back, Saad said, they were empty. The executioners were in such a hurry to flee that they did not have time to bury those killed, and others came later to do that, he said.
The newly found grave site is at a place that was used by Hussein's government to train assassins for the intelligence service, defectors said. It is along the river, where it makes a loop 15 miles south of Baghdad.
And unlike other mass graves that have been uncovered in the two months since U.S. and British forces took control of Iraq, these graves are recent. Religious leaders say they are convinced that as many as 150 political prisoners met their fate here in Salman Pak on April 4, when Hussein's government was gasping its last breath.
Several dozen men were helping with the excavation yesterday. They scampered over the hot soil, some in bare feet, brushing back dirt and picking up the remains with hands covered with plastic bags or latex gloves. When recovered, the remains were inspected for any documents and wrapped in two layers of clear plastic.
Among those waiting, desperate for any scrap of information, was Kamal Sagban, 58, a grizzled farmer who had arisen at 4 a.m. to drive from his home in Samawah, 130 miles south, on the faintest of hopes that he might find the remains of his younger brother, who was taken away by the government's security service in February 1992.
Sagban heard about the discovery of the Salman Pak grave site on television and decided at once to investigate, as he had several other mass graves in recent weeks.
"They claimed he was a member of the Dawa Party [a mainly Shiite group with a long history of resistance to Baathist rule], but he had nothing to do with that," Sagban said of his brother Abul Zahra, who would now be 53 and left behind two wives. "Maybe at least I will find his ID."
Ajiba Ali Salma, with tears in her eyes and her leathery face framed by a black chador, voiced similar feelings about her son Moussa Hadi Moussa, who would be 40 now. He has been missing since his arrest at his home in Baghdad in 1991.
"As soon as they took him, I started searching for him. Whenever I hear any news, I go there to find him," she said. "I go to the Freed Prisoners Society. Now I am going to all the mass graves. But I am about to lose my hope."
Fartousi, who said he was imprisoned for 12 years during Hussein's rule, said his organization would take the remains and provide proper Muslim burials if no one claimed them. They will be photographed and cataloged and put into the association's records, available for scrutiny by families looking for loved ones.