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Iraqis' searches for war dead may end in vain

NAJAF, Iraq—Every day the past week, Yunis Mohammed has stood outside the U.S. Marine base at the technical college here, waiting for Iraqi aid workers to arrive with shovels to dig for closure that may never come.

Mohammed, 56, of Mosul, said he believes his nephew, a 26-year-old Iraqi army lieutenant who fought against U.S.-led forces, is lying in an unmarked grave somewhere on this campus under American protection.

Officials at the local Red Crescent Society branch, the Islamic equivalent to the Red Cross, say Yunis Mohammed is among 212 Iraqi families searching for missing loved ones who made up the last line of Saddam Hussein's defense in this central Iraqi city. To the world, they may be vanquished enemies, but to Mohammed, soldiers like Mohammed Jahsee Mohammed have the right to a proper burial and to give them "respect that martyrs deserve."

"I last saw my nephew on March 18, and he was so full of patriotism," the elder Mohammed said. "His was a just fight, to protect our country against invaders."

But leads to finding MIAs like Mohammed are thinning with each passing day. Most of the missing likely will never be recovered, said Moghdam Yaghoub, the Red Crescent official in charge of finding missing Iraqis in Najaf.

Who may have buried them also is unclear. Some Iraqi witnesses claim U.S. soldiers buried dead Iraqi soldiers in red bags, although military body bags are black. One U.S. Marine officer at the base said that American policy during this war was to return enemy prisoners to the Iraqis even if dead, not to bury them.

On Saturday, Yaghoub sought to answer these questions. He and four other volunteers, acting on a tip from local villagers that 10 Iraqi bodies were buried by U.S. soldiers in an empty field on campus, rumbled up to the Marine base in a bulldozer and pickup truck. Two armed Marines and a public affairs officer accompanied the procession to the supposed gravesite, while dozens of Iraqis pressed against the chain-link fence around the property to watch.

An Iraqi army buddy of the younger Mohammed was among those watching.

"I know he's there, and I know he's dead," said Mohammed Abdullah, 30, of Baghdad. "We became separated when the American and British planes dropped cluster bombs. I heard their shouts and screams as I ran away."

The only sound Saturday was the whine of the bulldozer volunteers used to dig beneath a football-field sized area of sand, trash and flies. For 30 minutes, the metal jaws grabbed soft earth and removed it, leaving a gaping hole, but little else.

The smell of decaying tissue suddenly overwhelmed the crew as they clamped surgical masks and bandanas across their face. Three volunteers grabbed shovels and jumped into the pit.

The stench emanated from a handful of Iraqi military-issued olive and red blankets, as well as a plaid one. All were caked in decaying blood. Yet the blankets were empty except for a few bones.

A group of children living on campus led the team to a second spot near their homes a 5-minute walk away. There, Zeid Kadhom, Red Crescent team leader, found an Iraqi Army uniform jacket splattered with blood. The rest of the uniform had been shed, but no sign of the wearer. Inside a pocket he found 115 Iraqi dinars, the equivalent of six cents, as well as an unused furlough slip for Feb. 26 made out to Hussein Zueytan of Karbala.

A hundred yards away, Kadhom uncovered two skulls that a local teenager said he had buried a few weeks ago. He gently stuffed them into a discarded gray bag that once contained U.S. Army protection wear against chemical and biological warfare.

"I'm not going to tell the families we found these," Kadhom decided. "It's horrible for them to see this. They'll cry and say `that's my child or my brother' or some other relative."

Whether the forensic doctor would be able to put a name to the remains is doubtful, he said. Even if they were able to identify DNA in the bone fragments, thered be no records to match them up with.

Three hours after they started, the Red Crescent team left, unable to provide answers to the handful of hopeful relatives holding vigil outside the campus. Mohammed said he was disappointed but not dissuaded.

"I will keep searching until I find my nephew," he said. "He deserves that much."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+DIG