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Iraq, U.S. Excavating Iraq's Mass Graves, USAID's Natsios Says

Iraqi and U.S. officials have prepared a long-range plan to excavate mass graves in Iraq and prepare forensic evidence of crimes against humanity, according to Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in May 2003, more than 270 mass graves in Iraq have been reported, Natsios told reporters March 17 at the State Department's Foreign Press Center in Washington.

Some of the graves are relatively small, containing a few dozen remains, while other graves are hundreds of meters long, according to a report distributed at the briefing.

There are 300,000-400,000 bodies reported to lie in mass graves in Iraq. "The bones tell a story of horror and shame. Arms bound together. Skulls pierced from behind. Hundreds in one long trench," Natsios said.

Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis all were killed, along with people from Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran living in Iraq, Natsios said. The killings during the Saddam Hussein regime are surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot's Cambodian "killing fields" in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, the report said.

USAID is now helping Iraqis "begin the terrible task of counting," he said. The excavations will meet "humanitarian, emotional and judicial resolution" needs, according to the report. U.S. forensic and criminal investigation teams are being assisted by representatives from Britain, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Italy, it added.

USAID and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) are training Iraqis to assist communities emotionally, collect information about possible victims and properly identify remains, the report said.

Additionally, a national media campaign has begun to explain to Iraqis -- some of whom have dug into grave sites seeking the remains of their relatives and friends -- about the importance of preserving the sites for scientific investigation and having patience with the investigation process, the report said.

"Getting the word out on a national level will facilitate identification of the missing and encourage citizens to come forward with evidence of atrocities," it said.

"In an effort for all Iraqis to move to a new democratic future, there must be an accurate accounting of these past atrocities," said Natsios. "Above all, people in Iraq and around the world hope to learn from the crimes of the past, so they will not be allowed to occur again. That's why the mass graves in Iraq must be documented, reported and never forgotten."

Natsios' call for documentation contrasted sharply with efforts cited in the report by supporters of Saddam Hussein's regime to undermine the forensic effort by threatening local human rights workers collecting evidence of people exhumed.

The Iraqi Governing Council has announced it will form a national tribunal to try individuals charged with mass killings of people in Iraq.

Addressing the situation in Iraq generally, Natsios said a poll released March 16 indicated that 71 percent of Iraqis believe their lives will improve over the next year.

This "vote of confidence" is due in part by the "massive foreign assistance program" carried out by USAID and the CPA over the past year, the administrator said. USAID plans to continue its operations in Iraq after the transfer of power to Iraqis this summer, he added.

Natsios said efforts to help establish "normalcy" in Iraq have included establishing the foundation for democratic governance, reconstructing schools and providing learning tools, re-establishing the country's ministries, maintaining food security, restoring electricity and other components of the country's infrastructure, stabilizing the provision of health care, and opening women's training and support centers.

Of USAID's accomplishments in Iraq since March 2003, Natsios said, "Our efforts will help Iraqis to take charge of their country, establish a stable, lasting democracy based on individual rights and respect for the human rights of all Iraqis."

The report on Iraq's mass graves is available online at:

Following is a transcript of Natsios' prepared remarks to reporters:


Foreign Press Center Remarks by Administrator Natsios

Today I want to talk about the horrors of the mass graves that the Iraqis found in their country after the end of Saddam Hussein's murderous tyranny. Afterwards, I will discuss some of the enormous progress Iraqis are making -- on their own and with U.S. assistance -- towards their new freedom. Across Iraq, more than 270 mass graves have been reported and about 50 of them have been confirmed as they begin to yield their tragic secrets. The bones tell a story of horror and shame. Arms bound together. Skulls pierced from behind. Hundreds in one long trench.

Those who survived inside Iraq and those of us who watched helplessly from outside have now joined together to begin the long and painful process of accounting for the dead. In order for all Iraqis to move into their new democratic future, there must be an accurate accounting of these past atrocities. How many died in these mass murders? Some say 300,000. Some say 400,000. We are helping the Iraqis as they begin the terrible task of counting.

The killings of Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis -- and the killings of foreigners from Kuwait, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran -- took place in waves. Methodically, Saddam's forces destroyed villages, transferred women and children to detention camps and took away the men in trucks -- some of them barefoot and naked -- never to be seen again. Tens of thousands of people were taken far from their homes to distant camps in the desert where they were killed, buried by bulldozers under tons of sand. This was not some random violence by out-of-control troops. This was systematic mass murder. It is a death toll that rivals only the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the killing fields of Pol Pot in the 1970s, Stalin's great terror and the mass murder of World War II.

The new Iraqi leaders in Al Hillah, Karbala, Najaf and other Iraqi cities are working with USAID, British, Polish, Italian and other coalition military forces to try and protect and forensically analyze some of the mass graves. These crimes against humanity must not be forgotten.

USAID is funding many Iraqi human rights groups that have formed and are urging people to record the names of those being exhumed and describe the circumstances in which they were seized and slain. USAID provided the Free Prisoners Association, the Lawyers Association and other groups around Iraq with computers, tools, office space and experts to help protect the mass graves and begin to exhume them in a scientific, forensically safe way. An international effort has begun to help Iraqis prepare forensic evidence of crimes against humanity in a court of law such as the Iraq Tribunal. For example, Finland has just sent a team of forensic experts to help train the Iraqis in this new science -- part anthropology, part criminology.

As Iraqi women and children, husbands and brothers, streamed into the once-forbidden military bases where the worst mass killings and burials took place, a handful of survivors came forward to tell their stories.

Three of these first person accounts are included in our new Mass Graves booklet that USAID has just published. The brochure is available in English and Arabic and is being distributed throughout Iraq, the Middle East and Europe. You can also see the booklet and download it at our website,

One of the survivors is a 36-year-old aircraft mechanic, who asked that his real name not be disclosed. He was driving with his family near the south central Shiite city of Al Hillah March 6, 1991, during the Shiite uprising after the end of the Gulf War. He was arrested at a military checkpoint and taken to Mahaweel, the country's largest military base.

He tells what he saw as he waited all day with hundreds of other prisoners
-- men, women, children, the old, the blind -- all of them Shiites. Saddam military men built a large ring of tires about 20 feet wide and set it on fire and began throwing people into it. Other prisoners were taken away by bus to a muddy swamp behind a brick factory where he began to hear gun shots. Everyone in the bus was blindfolded.

Then they pulled about seven to ten people off the bus. He heard shots ring out. His group was next. They were led to the front of the bus where the headlights were directly on them. They were pushed to the ground and then were pulled up one at a time to be executed. They were pushed a couple of feet to the edge of the swamp and shot. Most would fall before being shot because they were overcome with fear.

There were three executioners. They took turns shooting and reloading so the man turned to the swamp, jumped over bodies and ran through the water. He was shot in the left hand and foot and fell breaking his nose. He continued on and made it to the other side of the swamp. After hiding for a month and recovering, he returned home to discover his two brothers had been executed in similar round-ups.

Because of the secrecy Saddam imposed, and the fear and shame felt by the millions he terrorized, the world knows little about what happened inside his tyrannical regime. But those stepping forward today have decided that they must tell the stories, no matter how much pain it causes.

Above all, people in Iraq and around the world hope to learn from the crimes of the past, so they will not be allowed to occur again. That's why the mass graves of Iraq must be documented, reported and never forgotten. The USAID booklet is a small, early marker on that path.

Another step is the film "Saddam's Mass Graves" produced by independent Iraqi filmmaker Jano Rosebiani, with a small grant from USAID. We will now show you a short excerpt from the 58-minute film, which includes interviews with many who survived the mass killings but whose husbands, brothers and children ended up in the Mass Graves. Copies of the movie will be available following today's press conference.

There is little that anyone can say after seeing these people tell of their suffering. But their pain is giving way to a new era. Are there still problems? Yes. But do you think many Iraqis want to turn the clock back and allow Saddam and his murderous tyranny restored to power?

A new poll released yesterday March 16 by ABC News shows that most Iraqis say their lives are better now than before the war. Some 56 percent said life was better now and 23 percent said it was the same. Only 19 percent said things were worse.

Significantly, 71 percent said they expect their lives to get better over the next year -- a huge vote of confidence in the future. In part, this confidence has been produced by the elimination of Saddam's terror. But also in part by the massive U.S. foreign assistance program carried out by USAID and the Coalition Provisional Authority over the past year.

In the year since USAID 's Iraq aid teams mobilized on March 16, 2003 to head into Iraq, they have carried out the Agency's largest reconstruction task in its history. USAID put $2 billion of assistance into Iraq in six months -- it's only rival in size is the Marshall Plan completed following World War Two to help rebuild Europe.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the first year is that our troops and our foreign assistance have brought some normalcy and sense of hope to the vast majority of Iraqis. Normalcy was established because CPA and USAID immediately started work on schools, water, electricity, financial stability and local governance.

By repairing and re-opening hundreds of schools, by getting teachers paid and students back in school within six weeks, by holding matriculation exams and by printing 8.7 million new math and science textbooks, Iraqi kids did not suffer disruption to their education. When children and parents are able to maintain the normal routines of life, it gives a sense of hope. This sense of hope is now driving the larger political tasks facing the Iraqi Governing Council as it creates a democratic government on the ashes of 30 years of Saddam Hussein's murderous tyranny. The recent signing of the Transitional Administrative Law, or TAL, is living evidence of this sense of hope transformed into action.

Let's briefly review the top achievements of USAID working with CPA over the past year in Iraq:

1. ESTABLISHED THE FOUNDATION FOR DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE: We quickly set up USAID's "Local Governance Program" in Iraq's major cities and 18 governorates in cooperation with our U.S. civil affairs teams. Men and women, clerics and secularists, businessmen and workers all learned to work together, to compromise and to cope with the basic issues of local
government: reconstruction of roads and sewers, cleaning streets, traffic management, maintaining health clinics and schools, police training and other local issues.

2. RECONSTRUCTED SCHOOLS AND PROVIDED THE KEY TOOLS FOR LEARNING WITHOUT THE EVIL OF THE PREVIOUS REGIME IMBUED INTO THEIR TEXTS: For example, quick grants to UNESCO helped print 8.7 million textbooks in Arabic and Kurdish and we have rehabilitated over 2,000 schools. We distributed 1.5 million secondary school bags with educational supplies and trained over 32,000 teachers.

3. HELPED RE-ESTABLISH IRAQI MINISTRIES: National Government Ministries were quickly up and running despite post-war looting. USAID provided "Ministries in a Box" and set up 100 officials in each ministry with desks, chairs, phones, computers and basic materials.

4. MAINTAINED FOOD SECURITY FOR ALL IRAQIS: The public food distribution system was kept operating so there was no hunger. The Agency's Food for Peace office sent about 10 big shiploads totaling 500,000 tons of grain. To date more than $104 million in humanitarian assistance was provided for nutrition, health, shelter.

5. RESTORED ELECTRICITY TO PRE-CONFLICT LEVELS: Electricity was restored in six months by USAID's main contractor, Bechtel. Basra now has 23 hours of power per day compared with two hours under Saddam. The improved power, combined with massive repairs to water and sewerage systems, is improving the health and environment quality of 15 million Iraqis.

6. STABILIZED THE PROVISION OF HEALTH SERVICES THROUGH TRAINING, IMMUNIZATIONS AND TREATMENT: USAID has vaccinated over 3 million Iraqi children under the age of five. We've equipped over 600 primary care facilities and rehabilitated over 60 primary healthcare clinics. We have trained more than 2,000 healthcare providers.

7. OPENED 17 WOMEN'S CENTERS TO PROVIDE JOB TRAINING AND RESOURCES FOR COMBATTING VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: Women's rights have been dramatically improved and the TAL is proof of this improvement. Women voters and women candidates were escorted to local council elections. War widows and women's unemployment are being addressed at the grassroots level.

8. FINANCIAL STABILIZATION HAS SET THE FOUNDATION FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH: Financial stability was created through a substantial currency exchange program and technical assistance provided by the USG and contract partners like Bearing Point. The Iraqi dinar with Saddam's portrait was collected and destroyed while new replacement dinars were printed and distributed. Their value has increased. The central bank was put back on its feet USAID set up a financial information system and a government accounting system.

9. TRANSPORTATION INFRASTRUCTURE HAS BEEN RESTORED: Three major bridges linking the country's highways were repaired by Bechtel. Gasoline was produced by providing electricity and security to the refinery and to gas pipelines.

10. TELECOMMUNICATIONS WAS RE-ESTABLISHED: Local phone service was restored and international call service was re-opened for the first time since the conflict. 13 telecommunications switches were installed, fiber optic cable was repaired, and 20 Iraqi cities were reconnected to Baghdad.

11. PORT AND SHIPPING INFRASTRUCTURE REOPENED. The country's deep-water port at Umm Qasr now has 50 ocean-going ships a month docking with grain and other goods after USAID had the port dredged and removed shipwrecks and unexploded bombs lei since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

After looking back over the tragedies of Iraq's recent past and the achievements of the last year, I am more convinced than ever that our efforts will help Iraqis to take charge of their country establish a stable, lasting democracy based on individual rights and respect for the human rig of all Iraqis.

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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