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Iraqi families trying to solve about 210,000 homicides

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Abdul al Amir Hassan, engineer. Mohamed Ali Kukha, shopkeeper. Falah Hassan, high school student. Thamir Ghedan, hairdresser. Hameed Abbass, baker. The long, terse list of Iraq's dead and presumed dead reads like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Al Salam Dawood, military officer. Karim Mohamed Ali, university graduate.

Iraqis have more than 210,000 of these homicides by Saddam Hussein's regime to solve. That's four times the U.S. dead in Vietnam in a country less than a tenth the size. And the deaths are harder to account for. Most are missing persons, presumed dead. So loved ones search for bodies. Many of the rest of the homicides are the opposite: unidentified bodies, or parts of them, without names. So loved ones sort through disinterred bones.

The great national quest to solve these murder mysteries is happening now because it was next to impossible to pursue during Saddam's reign. Islamic law is making matters more urgent. It requires that loved ones provide proper burial as soon as possible after death is confirmed. Also, Iraq is rich in rumors that widows and orphans will receive government compensation if they can confirm their spouses' or fathers' deaths.

The first place many Iraqis go is the Committee of Free Prisoners, a missing persons group with offices in the former home of one of Saddam's senior Republican Guards. There, in a courtyard, relatives trace their fingers down and across lists of names that line the garden walls.

Every Saturday, the committee releases new names of people whose deaths can be confirmed from liberated intelligence and security agency files. Men and women rush the front gates, waving tiny scraps of paper scrawled with the names of their loved ones, beseeching the committee's exhausted staff for help finding a match.

Like the kin of World Trade Center victims, loved ones post fliers and photographs of their missing on the committee's walls.

"I want to locate the grave, get the body, and I want to be compensated," said a weary Kamel Abeal Wahed, 50. He'd just found the name of his brother Salem, missing since 1980, on the wall.

"I feel like a stone. I can't sense anything," said Faiez Yaseen Mahdi, of Basra. He'd just found the names of three of the 10 brothers and cousins he'd lost since 1983. "It is better to know," he said flatly.

Rasmea Mohamed, 38, a mother of six, clutched a flier for her husband, Hashim Ali Farhan, 44, missing since 1993.

"My heart tells me he is alive," she said. "But even if he is dead, I wish to get a death certificate because without it, widows cannot be compensated."

Inside the committee's offices, files spill from recycled grain sacks and metal filing cabinets. Other files, thousands of them, are stacked in high, unstable piles.

This file tells of an 11-year-old boy executed for tearing a picture of Saddam out of his schoolbook. This one tells of a Shiite imprisoned for three years and then "hanged until dead" in 1983 for praying daily at a mosque. He was 14. This one describes a military officer imprisoned for attending the funeral for and helping to bury a union leader who was considered an enemy of the regime. This one—almost funny—describes a motorcyclist who hit a pothole and was jailed for blaming the accident on the Baath Party's failure to fix the road. There are countless files on Shiites executed for practicing their faith.

Some remains lie in mounds of clay soil at a mass grave in Hilla, just south of Baghdad. Roughly 1,300 bodies—skeletons, really, and parts of skeletons—were dug up there and reburied last week. The reburial wasn't quite proper; the remains were buried unidentified and largely unmourned. Scraps of clothing or the plastic dog tags that Iraqi soldiers wore identified about 700 others. Those turn out to last longer than flesh.

The day before the reburial, men bent over plastic bags of mismatched bones and skulls, sorting through them quickly. Nearby, women in dusty black robes wailed. One especially hopeful family drove up with a coffin on their car's roof for a body that never materialized.

Ali Abbass, 40, helped his grandmother's unavailing search for one of her sons, his uncle. His grandmother, 90, said she had been looking for her son, Yahya, since 1991, and she told his story:

"He was ending his fast so he asked to have lunch first. They said they only needed to talk to him for half an hour and then he could come home. He has not returned."

She beat her chest and forehead with both hands and wailed, "Oh my child, what did your soul say when they killed you?"

In the end, few searchers found anything. Mostly they argued among themselves about where to look next.

Their task was complicated by the fact that residents had dug up the mass grave on their own, using backhoes and their bare hands.

"There's bags here with two skulls in them and with bodies ripped in half," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with the New York-based humanitarian group Human Rights Watch who interviewed many of the searchers and mourners.

Back at the Committee of Free Prisoners, Vice President Haider al Taay worked feverishly with a dozen other volunteers to build a database of victims. They're adding about 1,500 names a day.

It's hard for them to share their information beyond their compound's walls. They're short of computers and have no photocopier, no digital camera, no Internet access.

"I manage about two hours a night of sleep," said al Taay, 35, who was imprisoned for more than six years in the early ྌs. "There are so many files."


(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+missing