On 16 May, 2003, Iraqi excavation teams uncovered the first of what would become a gruesome series of mass graves scattered across the country that bore physical testament to the brutal regime of recently deposed president Saddam Hussein. The 15,000 bodies discovered in Al-Mahawil, close to the Iraqi city of Al-Hilla (100km south of Baghdad), were believed to belong to victims of the 1991 Shia-instigated popular uprising that was brutally repressed by Saddam’s Republican Guards. On the first anniversary of the discovery of the Al-Mahawil graves in 2004, the Iraqi government declared 16 May a memorial day to commemorate “the hideous crimes committed by the former Iraqi regime.”
More than a decade later, the 2015 Iraq Mass Graves Day looks set to continue this bloody tradition, with recent atrocities contributing to the ever-growing list of dead across the country.
It was only after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that many Iraqis were able to find out what had become of their family members and the world was made aware of the true extent of Iraqi suffering under the Baath regime. Along with systematic surveillance and “disappearances” of anyone deemed a threat to the regime, Saddam Hussein ruthlessly targeted both the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south; the latter predominantly during the crackdown on the 1991 uprising that killed an estimated 100,000 – 180,000 individuals, and the former through a systematic genocide campaign known as the “Anfal” during the late 1980s and early 90s. Mostly targeting towns and villages in the Kurdish northern region through chemical weapons attacks, the Anfal campaign resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people, including 5,000 civilians during the notorious attack on Halabja in 1988.
The sheer scale of death and destruction under Saddam Hussein is difficult to comprehend; with Human Rights Watch estimating as early as May 2003 that more than 290,000 people may have been officially “disappeared” under the Baath party (that figure does not include those killed in the Anfal and 1991 uprising). Many Iraqi families have spent decades living in fear and vain hope of finding out what happened to their loved ones, with most never receiving a satisfactory answer.
Although Saddam’s tyrannical 35-year reign may be over, the legacy of his brutality lives on not only in the memories of survivors and families of his victims, but in the political and social power structures that have outlived him and have contributed to the country’s current demise. The rise of sectarian-fuelled violence following the 2003 invasion, and the recent upsurge of radical jihadists military groups such as Islamic State (also known as ISIS), has led to successive waves of killing across the country.
In June 2014, ISIS forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit and invaded a military training base known as Camp Speicher, systematically separating the young recruits by sectarian affiliation before massacring the Shia in a well-documented killing spree. It wasn’t until early this year, following the recapture of Tikrit by Iraqi government forces, that forensic teams were able to excavate the mass graves and confirm that more than 1,700 individuals had been killed.
As the Iraqi government prepares to attempt to re-take areas of Anbar province under ISIS control, we can expect news of further mass graves being uncovered, and atrocities being documented. The bloody cycle of violence in Iraq looks set to continue for some time yet; and, ultimately, it is the country’s mass graves that will tell the story of the human price of the current political and sectarian turmoil.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.