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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

3,000 Bodies Found in Mass Graves

MAHAWEEL, Iraq -- Villagers pulled body after body from a mass grave in central Iraq on Wednesday, exhuming the remains of up to 3,000 people they suspect were killed during the 1991 Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein's regime. Uncounted bodies remained unearthed at the site, officials said.

By every indication, the mass grave in a village outside Hillah, 100 kilometers south of Baghdad, is the largest found in Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew the government last month.

Hundreds of people from nearby towns and villages watched from behind a barbed-wire barrier as sets of remains were pulled from the field and set aside wrapped in plastic bags, sheets and blankets. Many onlookers were weeping, and some chanted: "There is no God but God, and the Baath Party is the enemy of God."

Rafed Husseini, a medical doctor leading the group of local men doing the digging, said a total of 3,000 bodies had either been retrieved or located in the past nine days. About half remain unidentified while the rest have been identified mainly through documents found on the bodies, Husseini said.

Village headman Abuzaid Dinar said his dead father and brother were buried somewhere in the area, where several separate mass graves were spread out over about a 1 kilometer-square area.

The excavation Wednesday came two days after Iraqis pulled bodies from a newly discovered mass grave near Basra, the country's second-largest city. That site in southern Iraq was believed to contain remains of up to 150 Shiite Muslims killed by Hussein's regime after a rebellion in 1999.

Human rights groups say they believe Iraq is dotted with mass graves, many filled with victims of Hussein's brutal excesses. Villagers said that appeared to be the case with the latest site.

"About 20 percent of them were buried alive, because they had no bullet wounds, but their hands were tied and they were blindfolded," said Ameer Shumri of the governor's office in Hillah.

Shiites rose up against Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War but were crushed by the Iraqi leader and his police and military apparatus. Thousands of Shiites were killed. Many Shiites had expected more U.S. help in their revolt. Some have expressed bitterness, saying the United States under former President George Bush had not intervened to save them from Hussein's wrath.

U.S. Marines arrived earlier Wednesday to secure the site. "We are to help facilitate the reunion of victims and families," said Captain David Romley from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, who added that his unit had only heard about the site two days earlier. "They want to excavate the site themselves. We can take this evidence and present it to a future Iraqi judiciary."

But Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with the London-based group Human Rights Watch, criticized the United States for not sending any forensic experts to Hillah and for allowing local people to excavate the mass graves.

"The way they're doing it, they are destroying evidence," Bouckaert said. "It's an absolutely shameful failure on the part of the U.S. government."

He said at least 200,000 people had disappeared in Iraq during the past decade, and that human rights groups were aware of the locations of many other mass grave sites throughout the country.

In Britain, a lawmaker condemned the U.S.-led forces for not having acted earlier on information from Iraqis indicating where graves are located.