BAGHDAD, Iraq - Two mass graves that appear to contain the remains of as many as 7,000 people killed by Saddam Hussein's government have been discovered in southern Iraq, according to an Iraqi government minister.
The new Iraqi government may use some of the remains to build its case against war crimes suspects, including Hussein, Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin said yesterday.
Iraqi officials said they have been unable to excavate the burial grounds found earlier this year because of security concerns and because Iraq lacks enough forensic workers to perform the grisly task. Amin said that several of his investigators recently visited the sites and calculated the number of bodies by surveying the contours of the graves and interviewing witnesses of the burials.
The larger of the grave sites is in a deserted area near the southern port city of Basra, where Hussein's Sunni-led Baathist government waged a brutal campaign against a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Amin said 5,000 bodies of people involved in the uprising might be buried there.
Amin said the rest of the bodies were found in Samawa, a less-inhabited area in south-central Iraq.
"We have found about 2,000 remains in the Samawa area of the family of Massoud Barzani," Amin said, referring to the current chief of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two most powerful Kurdish organizations in Iraq and a longtime leader of a guerrilla movement against Hussein.
Hussein's army detained 8,000 of Barzani's clansmen in their homeland in northern Iraq in 1983, and they were never heard from again.
If the ministry's estimates are correct, the two mass graves would be among the largest of 290 secret burial sites reported found in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. Iraqi human rights investigators estimate that 600,000 to 1 million people disappeared during Hussein's rule.
Amin said a relatively small number of remains will be needed to build war crimes tribunal cases against former Baathists accused of having committed mass murder. But he said exhuming and identifying the bodies also has a cathartic effect for the families of victims of Hussein's regime.
The most recent discoveries developed over several weeks early this year, said Amin, after witnesses of the mass burials came forward to speak with human rights officials.
"We first heard about it in January and started taking photos of the site, and we have come to the conclusion that we have about 5,000 graves," Amin said of the site near Basra.
Meanwhile yesterday, a U.S. military spokesman announced that two U.S. soldiers died in fighting near Fallujah, one on Wednesday, the other on Thursday. No further details were released.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.