March 19, 2004,
One year after the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, many citizens there applaud while others jeer. But thousands more are as quiet as ever.
Those who populate Iraq's mass graves silently testify to what their country has escaped.
Saddam Hussein, as these skeletons demonstrate, was not merely a world-class autocrat like Haiti's deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or the late Philippine strongman, Ferdinand Marcos. Hussein also was a highly effective mass murderer.
"Iraq's Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves," a new report from the U.S. Agency for International Development, illuminates this aspect of Hussein's brutality. The paper compiled by USAID staffers Ben Barber and Stephen Epstein, with graphic, jarring photographs by Thomas Hartwell is available online at www.usaid.gov/iraq/legacyofterror.html.
"In June 2003, I visited Iraq's mass graves, the most recent addition to mankind's legacy of mass murder," writes USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. "The bones tell a story of horror and shame: arms bound together, skulls pierced from behind. Hundreds in one long trench."
According to the study, 270 mass graves have been reported since Hussein fell last May. Since then, 53 sites have been confirmed. "Some graves hold a few dozen bodies," the authors explain. "Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies.
Assessments of the devastation vary. Last May, Human Rights Watch concluded that "as many as 290,000 Iraqis have been 'disappeared' by the Iraqi government over the past two decades." Last November 20, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "We've already discovered just so far the remains of 400,000 people in mass graves." This scale of destruction rivals 1994's Rwandan genocide.
USAID relays the stories of three men who were left for dead, but escaped their graves, thanks to non-fatal wounds. Ali (a pseudonym) recalls being dragged from his car during a March 6, 1991 family outing. The 36-year-old was driven to the Mahawil military camp, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Among roughly 200 captives, he says he saw some, including a blind man and a five-year-old boy, shot and thrown into a trench. To speed the killing, others were burned alive on a 20-foot-wide pile of tires. Still more were forced to stand for hours in cold water, given electric shocks on their tongues, or fatally beaten with pipes. Unlike Ali, few got away.
Medical examiners, legal experts and human-rights personnel are excavating these graves meticulously, both to identify the dead and to gather evidence for the trials of Baathist henchmen for crimes against humanity. Despite the war critics' hackneyed lie that America is all alone in Iraq (perhaps those troops from 35 countries are really tin soldiers), the U.S. enjoys international help in this area. Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden have provided forensic teams and material assistance.
Many Iraq-war opponents complain about Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as if it were an American Stalag for al Qaeda terrorists. These folks should remember that those who tumbled into Saddam Hussein's mass-grave program did not get there after indictments, trials, and appeals. They didn't even have lawyers. Some of those killed had rebelled against Hussein's regime or deserted the military. Most, though, were gunned down and left to rot without the dignity of coffins and tombstones, simply for being Kurdish or Shiite or standing on the wrong corner during a Baathist street sweep.
Iraq's mass graves have received some attention, but foes of Operation Iraqi Freedom prefer to discuss other things. They would rather focus on unseen weapons of mass destruction than on obvious scenes of mass death.
The liberal media appear only mildly interested in all of this. The Nexis database shows, for instance, that between January 1 and March 15, 2004, America's so-called paper of record, the New York Times, featured 191 references to Iraq and "weapons of mass destruction," but only six to Iraq and "mass graves." It's far easier to slam President Bush on Iraq while some 400,000 Iraqis who loudly would defend him, instead are busy decomposing.
Those who still believe America and its allies should have left Iraq untouched cannot avoid this conclusion: Had their arguments prevailed, Saddam Hussein's mass graves would be in business today, increasingly brimming with Baathism's voiceless victims.