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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 May, 2003, 19:06 GMT 20:06 UK
Search goes on at mass grave
Man cradles remains of a dead relative as digger turns over earth at grave site
Relatives have taken the remains for reburial
Distraught Iraqis are continuing to search for the remains of loved ones in a mass grave as human rights groups denounced coalition forces for failing to protect the site.

The grave just outside the small village of al-Mahawil, located near the city of Hilla about 56 miles (90 km) south of Baghdad, is thought to be one of the largest discovered since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government.

Local volunteers say the remains of up to 3,000 people had been found so far, but estimates suggest there could be as many as 15,000 buried at the site.

Hundreds of distraught Iraqis have been sifting through bones on the site, searching for identity cards or personal effects which may aid the identification of the bodies.

The remains are thought to include the bodies of political prisoners killed after a Shia Muslim uprising against Saddam in 1991, and volunteers have reported uncovering the bodies of women and children as young as 10.

Some seem to have been buried alive, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Kirkuk: Kurdish officials report discovery of 2,000 bodies
Muhammad Sakran: Reports say more than 1,000 bodies found
Babylon: Children's bones reportedly among remains found
al-Mahawil: Up to 15,000 bodies feared buried
Najaf: 72 bodies found
Basra: Grave believed to contain about 150 Shia Muslims
Abul Khasib: 40 bodies reportedly found

Human Rights Watch has criticised coalition forces in Iraq for failing to preserve the grave, and called for forensic experts to professionally identify the bodies and collect evidence which could be used against the remnants of Saddam's regime.

A spokesman for Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, said at the scene that there was "not a single forensic expert here brought by the United States".

"The failure is on the part of US and coalition forces. The majority of people leave without answers. It's a setback in the effort to bring criminals to court," he added.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged the problem but said that coalition forces were "urgently looking at how we redouble our efforts to protect the sites and to make sure we gather the evidence".

'Looking into hell'

Iraqis dug using a mechanical digger and even their hands to find the bodies at al-Mahawil, which they painstakingly attempted to identify from clothing and identity cards on the bodies.

Women weep as they search for relatives at grave site
US marines at the site said the Iraqi people's suffering must be respected

The identification process has been complicated by relatives of the dead carrying them off to give them a proper funeral before sundown, in keeping with Muslim tradition, the French news agency AFP reported.

Some Iraqis have identified relatives on evidence as flimsy as the discovery of a brand of cigarette their family member was known to smoke, such was the zeal to find their loved ones.

One young man told Reuters news agency he was sure he had found the remains of his brother because he recognised the shirt he always used to wear.

BBC correspondents say the stench at the site is unbearable and a group of US marines who visited said it was like looking into hell.

One man, who lived in a field near the site, told the BBC that he remembered the events of 1991.

"I saw trucks going to the field [and] heard shooting, I knew they were killing people, but not how many," he told the BBC.

"We expect many more here," said local doctor Rafid al-Husseini.

"We found bodies on top of each other."

Graves across Iraq

Despite the criticism, US Marine Major Al Schmidt told the BBC that they had to be respectful of the Iraqis who had suffered.

"This man [Saddam Hussein] committed a lot of atrocities [but] we are not going to stand here and disrupt them from their mourning," he said.

"We're going to come in as best we can and do what's best for these people."

Families desperate to find loved ones have also been searching plots at the graveyard in Khan Banisaad, a village 30 km (19 miles) north-east of the Iraqi capital.

Iraqi officials in the southern city of Basra have reported finding 1,000 bodies in a mass grave.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"International human rights monitors, appalled by the scenes revealed yesterday, have moved in"

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