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Beyond Stone & Bone

Massacre of the Innocents
by Heather Pringle
December 12, 2008

Michael Trimble in a mass grave in IraqI was stunned this week to see how little coverage a major story out of Iraq received in the world’s newpapers and online media.  I know many people are tired of reading about Iraq and the horrors visited upon its people, but I think we all need to hear this story.  It involves despicable crimes, cold-blooded killers and a small team of archaeologists who risked their lives in Iraq to excavate the evidence.  This week the Iraqi High Tribunal put their evidence to good use, convicting some of the perpetrators. 

A little history first.  In August 1990, the Iraqi government led by Saddam Hussein mounted a surprise invasion of its oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait, and announced its annexation.  So the United Nations authorized an international coalition to expel the Iraqi forces, and in January 1991, Operation Desert Storm began.   A month later,  when the fighting was pretty much over,  President George H.W. Bush called upon the Iraqi people in a radio broadcast “to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator,  to step aside….” Many of Iraq’s Shi’a Muslims took the president’s advice.  They revolted openly, convinced that the coalition would soon invade Iraq and depose Hussein. 

But the coalition turned back at the Iraqi border.   And Hussein and his senior officials, sensing weakness in the international community, took a  terrible vengeance on the Shi’a, arranging for the massacre of somewhere between 30,000 to 180,000 people.  The killings took a wide variety of forms.  Sometimes Hussein’s forces would capture ten to fifteen young Shi’a males in a town,  drive them out into the dessert,  and execute them at the edge of a shallow grave.  Other times, as one U.S. Marine investigator, Colonel Alvin Schmidt, told me,  they staged public executions.  “They’d bring crowds out to watch, and they’d execute entire families and bury them under sidewalks near a mosque,” said Schmidt. “So every time you went past this sidewalk, you knew that this is what was going to happen to you if you went against Saddam Hussein.” 

In 2003, when the Second Gulf War was over, Iraq’s new government decided to investigate the crimes of the former regime.  To the assist Iraqi prosecutors, a team of international forensic experts led by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist, Michael Trimble,  began digging some of Iraq’s mass graves.  Risking their lives at the height of the insurgency, the archaeologists, physical anthropologists, crime-scene photographers and evidence managers spent long weeks in the field,  excavating mass graves in Maysan province and elsewhere, mapping and recording the bodies and airlifting them out to a secret laboratory near Baghdad.  There, a team of forensic analysts sifted through the victims’ clothing and personal effects in search of identification,  examined and x-rayed the  bones,  and reconstructed the executions in chilling detail. 

Last year, the team’s detailed evidence helped convict five senior Iraqi leaders of crimes against humanity and war crimes against Iraq’s Kurds.  (Readers interested in learning more might want to check out the new January/February issue of Archaeology, which will hit the newsstands next week.  There I have written at length about the team and their work on the massive Kurdish case.)  Now,  this past week,  the team’s evidence assisted prosecutors in convicting the principle organizers of the Shi’ite massacres, including Saddam Hussein’s cousin,  Al Hassan al-Majid al-Tikriti—better known as Chemical Ali—and Abdul Ghani Abdul Ghafour, a senior Ba’ath party official. 

Many of the team members are still haunted by what they saw in those mass graves—young children clinging to their mothers, women cradling babies in their arms,  primary-school boys carrying makeshift water pistols to the grave.  I don’t think we can ever afford to turn away or tune out of this kind of news.   Mass graves are very dark places:  they desperately need the light of day. 

Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

9 comments for "Massacre of the Innocents"

  • Reply posted by Lee Kottner (December 12, 2008, 9:51 am):

    Thanks so much for writing about this. You’re right that it needs to be publicized better than it has been. Atrocities like these should always be exposed to the light of day.


  • Reply posted by Heather (December 12, 2008, 2:14 pm):

    I also believe that the mainstream media decided to pass on the story of the forensic team because they didn’t want to be seen as pro-war in Iraq. The excavations of Michael Trimble and his colleagues show in horrifying detail the crimes against humanity that took place in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime. Things are certainly a mess in Iraq now, no doubt about it. But it’s very important to remember and bear witness to the atrocities committed during Hussein’s rule.


  • Reply posted by Brown Line (December 13, 2008, 9:38 am):

    I read “Witness to Genocide” this morning. In my 30 years of subscribing to “Arachaeology”, this is the most moving article I’ve seen. Thank you.


  • Reply posted by Leah Holder (December 15, 2008, 5:12 pm):

    I was horrified to read this article. It brought tears to my eyes more than once and it caused me to wonder how many holocausts have been and how long before it is our turn.


  • Reply posted by Mike (December 16, 2008, 12:50 pm):



  • Reply posted by Will (December 16, 2008, 8:01 pm):

    The second gulf war did not end in 2003.


  • Reply posted by Jim Shivley (December 21, 2008, 4:24 am):

    This was a most interesting article; one that desperately needed to be told. During the past few days, we’ve seen a reporter throw a shoe at Pres. Bush, the highest insult a Muslim can deliver. That reporter doesn’t understand that Pres. Bush represents the U.S.A., the country responsible for removing Sadam Hussein and his henchmen from power and for bringing the facts about the Anfal and other atrocities to light. By insulting our leader, he insults us.
    Fortunately, he is part of a small group who despise the U.S. Family, friends and neighbors have served in Iraq and tell me that the Iraqis they had contact with were respectful and gracious.
    Thank you for telling us this story; it confirms our belief that people who do horrible things will someday be made to pay.


  • Reply posted by Annie B (December 25, 2008, 9:52 pm):

    It’s not that people didn’t know that Sadam Hussain was a brutal killer – it’s just that they didn’t care. They still don’t. So no matter how much evidence is brought up they will just ignore it and go on hating where they want to hate.


  • Reply posted by Jack (November 4, 2009, 1:22 pm):

    Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush clearly lost his nerve. He stopped short of finishing the job he started, of finishing Saddam Hussein and murderous regime off. His son finished it for him, thank God, but so much suffering and death could have been avoided.
    Hussein wound up more defiant than ever and the sanctions against him turned into a joke, a game he easily won with well-placed bribes, making him feel all the more powerful.
    In any case, of one thing we can be sure: The war to liberate Iraq was just – every bit as just as the war against the Nazis. Anyone who disagrees apparently believes that the people of France were somehow more worthy of our help than the people of Iraq.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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