A US general visited the site of a mass grave south of Baghdad Wednesday to extend his condolences to the families of the bereaved and encourage the work of civilians who are exhuming remains with their bare hands and an earth mover.
US Marine General James Conway, a three-star general who is the most senior US military to visit the site 90km south of the Iraqi capital, also offered the help of the US military in unearthing the graves.
Locals believe that the site at Al-Mahawil contains the remains of up to 15,000 people, including women and children, who disappeared during the reign of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Throughout Iraq, nearly 200,000 people are believed to have disappeared during the three-decades of Saddam's rule.
Conway's visit comes a day after human rights groups criticized the US for failing to secure the grave site and oversee an orderly exhumation that would secure forensic evidence. They said that the international community's failure to protect the site could mean that crucial evidence that may help explain the extent of the horrors carried out by the deposed regime could be lost.
In the Balkans genocide of the 1990s, sites were generally secured by international oversight and methodically excavated to gather evidence for war crimes trials.
Conway said that it was appropriate to let the bereaved families give their loved ones a "proper burial."
"We have the evidence that we need," he said.
The site is the the largest mass grave discovered to date in Iraq.
Conway found the Iraqis sifting through the soil, dug up by a lone Iraqi earth-moving machine, with their bare hands.
He told them that the US military was there to determine "what we can do to help", adding that "our feeling is that you would rather do this yourselves with our assistance."
Iraqis discovered the mass grave, one of many such sites in Iraq, about 10 days ago and immediately began excavating the site and exhuming the remains of the bodies with no help from outside.
"We started out with shovels," said Hayder al-Moussawi, one of many Iraqi volunteers at the site.
Almost all the volunteers came here initially to search for relatives who vanished in the purges that followed the 1991 uprising against Saddam's regime.
Now the workers have one earth-moving machine that digs up the grave and dumps the soil containing the remains of the victims outside, where volunteers use very rudimentary methods to isolate and identify the remains.
"We have managed to identify about 1,500 of the remains, including those of 26 Egyptians," said Saed Selim al-Najjar, a volunteer at the site.
He added that up to 3,000 remains have been recovered so far, half of which have yet to be identified.
Al-Najjar and his colleagues contend that the job of identifying the remains in the absence of any visible international assistance could represent a huge challenge.
The volunteers collect the remains in plastic bags provided by the US military, along with personal belongings such as clothes, shoes and watches.
Sometimes the workers find identification papers with intelligible names. The names are then called out in case there are relatives around. In certain cases, relatives identify their loved ones by their clothes.
The plastic bags containing the remains cover the entire area.
Grieving relatives move from one bag to another in search for clues about the identity of the remains.