Mass Grave Near Samawa in the Muthanna Province in Iraq

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Mass Grave Near Samawa in the Muthanna Province in Iraq


By: Anonymous

Date: April 21, 2005

Source: AP Images.

About the Photographer: This image was taken by a staff photographer for the Associated Press, a worldwide news agency based in New York.


In April 2005, an international team of forensic experts began to examine the site of a mass grave in the town of Samawa, some 230 miles (370 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq. Its purpose was to collect evidence for the legal prosecution of Saddam Hussein (ruler of Iraq, 1979–2003) and his top officers for these and other killings. Hussein's trial began in July 2004 and was ongoing as of early 2006.

The mass grave near Samawa is located near the Euphrates River. The dead were originally placed in eighteen trenches. Clothing and artifacts found with the bodies make it clear that most of the victims were Kurds, that is, members of the ethnic-national Kurdish people, whose area is partly occupied by Turkey and partly by Iraq. Because of Kurdish agitation for an independent homeland, they have been harshly persecuted both in Turkey and, under Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. Under Hussein, some Kurdish communities were forcibly removed from their villages in order to repopulate them with Arab settlers loyal to the Hussein regime. Displacement of Kurds and the use of poison gas to kill approximately five thousand Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 were among the charges brought against Hussein during his trial.

Exhumation of remains began at Samawa in early April 2005. By the end of the month, investigators had recovered the remains of about 113 victims. All but five were women and children. It is likely that the victims were made to dig the graves, then forced to stand at the edge and shot so that they would fall directly in. This technique was also used extensively by Nazi forces massacring Jews in Eastern Europe during World War II.

Only after the removal of the Hussein regime in 2003 was it possible to access the mass grave at Samawa and the approximately three hundred others that have been tentatively identified in Iraq. Because of continued instability in the country, investigation of mass graves has been slow; as of April 30, 2005, over two years after the invasion, investigators had only begun work on two such sites. Relatives of the missing, anguished by uncertainty over their loved ones' fate, had begun amateur exhumations of some mass graves. Experts point out that this disturbs evidence, making it more difficult to identify many bodies and potentially invalidating the gravesite as evidence against Hussein and his officers.



See primary source image.


The human rights group Amnesty International states that tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including many Kurds, were killed by Iraqi security forces during the reign of Saddam Hussein. The use of torture and rape was also widespread and systematic under Hussein. Disappearances and mass executions were, according to Amnesty International, at their heaviest during the years of the Iran-Iraq war, 1980–1988.

Hussein's atrocities are significant in ongoing political debates about whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq were justified. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was justified at the time by U.S. officials on several grounds, including Iraq's alleged possession of "weapons of mass destruction"; alleged Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to which, it was said, Hussein might pass some of his weapons of mass destruction for use against the United States; and humanitarian relief for the Iraqi people. In the years following the invasion, no weapons of mass destruction or devices for the production of such weapons were found in Iraq, nor was any evidence of ties between Hussein and terrorist groups responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks or other attacks on the United States found. These deficits have caused the humanitarian rationale—remove the tyrant, bring democracy—to become more important as a justification of U.S. actions. Exhumation of mass graves and revelations of torture chambers maintained by the Hussein regime have often been cited as evidence that "the world is better off without Saddam Hussein" (President George Bush during a debate with Sen. John Kerry, September 30, 2004) and that the U.S. invasion was justified regardless of whether Iraq was a military threat to the United States.

However, most of the killings by the Hussein regime took place during the 1980s, during which period he was actually a recipient of diplomatic and material support from the Reagan administration. In 1982, the U.S. State Department removed Iraq from its list of states supporting terrorism. During Hussein's reign, the U.S. government saw to it that Iraq received U.S. loans, provided Iraq with military intelligence, and in 1984 sent Donald Rumsfeld (later the second Bush administration's Secretary of Defense) to meet personally with Hussein and assure him that U.S. official condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iran should not cause Hussein to fear that the United States would cease positive relations. Critics of the Iraq invasion have pointed to these facts in support of the view that U.S. concern for Hussein's victims was not a motive for invading Iraq in 2003. Defenders of U.S. Iraq policy point to ongoing revelations of Hussein's brutality, including the bodies exhumed at Samawa, to justify the 2003 invasion, arguing that Iraq is better off today, despite widespread civil violence, than before the invasion.



Human Rights Watch. Human Rights in Iraq. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia of the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. Human Rights Violations under Saddam Hussein: Victims Speak out. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.


Loeb, Vernon. "Rumsfeld Visited Baghdad in 1984 to Reassure Iraqis, Documents Show." The Washington Post (December 19, 2003).

Web sites "Experts Combing Through Mass Grave in Iraq." April 30, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed May 5, 2006).

National Security Archive, George Washington University. "Shaking Hands with Saddam Hussein: The U.S. Tilts Toward Iraq, 1980–1984." February 25, 2003. 〈∼nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82〉 (accessed May 5, 2006).