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Western science frustrates Iraqis seeking traditional burials of their dead

BAGHDAD—In a country where the dead are most often claimed by sight, forensic science is bumping up against local custom in the rush to identify at least 10 Iraqis killed in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.

Investigators are asking Iraqis who believe a loved one died in the blast last Tuesday to turn over fingerprints, X-rays, dental records and even handwritten physical descriptions, U.N. security officer Nicolaas Rademyer said Sunday. He added that mothers of apparent victims would be asked to provide DNA samples to determine matches among dead Iraqis.

Such unfamiliar procedure frustrates Iraqis used to visually identifying bodies, and it prevents them from immediately burying the bodies as called for under Islam, said Dr. Faik Amin Baker, the Iraqi medical examiner in charge of the makeshift morgue at Baghdad International Airport. So far, no family members have been permitted to view the bodies, and even if they recognized relatives, the remains would not be released until science proved their identities, Baker said.

"We understand the frustration, we understand the culture," Rademyer said. "(But) we cannot afford to hand over the wrong body to the wrong family."

Maintaining lists of the missing and the dead has proved difficult because in the chaos after the explosion, some people were seen walking away and others were taken to distant hospitals, said David Roath, the U.S. Army's civilian director of search and recovery efforts at the site.

On Saturday, three days after the bombing, three people feared dead were discovered alive in a Baghdad hospital. Roath called the mix-up "good news."

He said he anticipated the discovery of more human remains as bulldozers and cranes continue to remove massive chunks of debris from the site.

Top forensic experts who identified victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are now examining remains from the U.N. blast, Roath said.

Roath would not give firm figures on the number of unidentified bodies found in the rubble of the Canal Hotel, which was the main base for the United Nations in Iraq until a suicide bomber in an explosives-laden truck killed at least 23 people and injured nearly 100. Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nation's special envoy to Iraq, was killed in the blast and was one of two victims whose bodies have been released for burial.

Investigators suspect Iraqi guards who worked at or near the compound may have helped stage the attack.


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