BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 14 - Investigators have discovered several mass graves in southern Iraq that are believed to contain the bodies of people killed
by Saddam Hussein's government, including one estimated to hold 5,000 bodies, Iraqi officials say.
The graves, discovered over the past three months, have not yet been dug up because of the risks posed by the continuing insurgency and the lack of qualified forensic workers, said Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq's interim human rights minister. But initial excavations have substantiated the accounts of witnesses to a number of massacres. If the estimated body counts prove correct, the new graves would be among the largest in the grim tally of mass killings that have gradually come to light since the fall of Mr. Hussein's government two years ago. At least 290 grave sites containing the remains of some 300,000 people have been found since the American invasion two years ago, Iraqi officials say.
Forensic evidence from some graves will feature prominently in the trials of Mr. Hussein and the leaders of his government. The trials are to start this spring.
One of the graves, near Basra, in the south, appears to contain about 5,000 bodies of Iraqi soldiers who joined a failed uprising against Mr. Hussein's government after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Another, near Samawa, is believed to contain the bodies of 2,000 members of the Kurdish clad led by Massoud Barzani.
As many as 8,000 men and boys from the clan disappeared in 1983 after being rounded up in northern Iraq by security forces at the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid, widely known as Chemical Ali. It remains unclear, however, how the victims ended up in the south.
Investigators have also discovered the remains of 58 Kuwaitis spread across several sites, including what appears to be a family of two adults and five children who were crushed by a tank, Mr. Amin said. At least 605 Kuwaitis disappeared at the time of the first gulf war, and before the latest graves were discovered, fewer than 200 had been accounted for, he added.
A smaller site was discovered near Nasiriya earlier this week. Arabic satellite television showed images of residents digging up remains there.
Mr. Amin declined to give the exact locations of the graves, saying it could endanger witnesses to the massacres and anyone working at the sites.
One obstacle to exhuming bodies has been an absence of DNA labs and forensic anthropologists in Iraq, Mr. Amin said.
In the aftermath of Mr. Hussein's fall, thousands of Iraqis overran mass grave sites, digging for their relatives' remains with backhoes, shovels, even their bare hands. A number of sites were looted, making identification of victims difficult, said Hanny Megally, Middle East director for the International Center for Transitional Justice.
The American occupation authority, after some initial hesitation, began classifying grave sites, and international teams began traveling to the sites in 2003 to conduct assessments or exhumations. But toward the end of 2004, rising violence led nearly all the teams to abandon their work.
Only one site has been fully examined, a grave of Kurdish victims in northern Iraq, Mr. Megally said. That work was overseen by the Regime Crimes Liaison Office, which is gathering evidence for the trials of Mr. Hussein and his deputies.
The interim Iraqi government, working with the United Nations, has drawn up plans for a National Center for Missing and Disappeared Persons that would have authority over all aspects of the process, from exhumations to providing assistance to victims' families.