News

Marines, sailors help unearth evidence of Saddam's crimes

13 Aug 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Marines in Iraq assisted the Kuwaiti government uncover several mass graves during July to locate the bodies of 87 people missing since the Gulf War.

The digs were supported by Task Force Justice, a I Marine Expeditionary Force team that helps gather evidence of war crimes committed by Saddam Hussein by unearthing remains of those killed during his regime.

For one of the recoveries July 15-19, the Justice Department's Regime Crimes Liaison Office in Baghdad tapped the I MEF to erect a temporary camp in the middle of the Iraqi desert and provide security for the excavation. An Iraqi man associated with some of the murders tipped off the grave's location, said Army Maj. Kate Van Auken, 37, one of the office's liaisons.

Providing much of the help, elements of the 1st Force Service Support Group trucked through the desert in waves. The first group got there in the morning and set up security and communications, said 1st Lt. Austin Mroczek, the site commander.

The rest of the troops convoyed to the camp that afternoon. Several hours after they arrived, the Marines as well as Navy Seabees had transformed the once barren area into a camp for 91 troops - all of whom slumbered under the stars.

The Seabees, from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14, based out of Jacksonville, Fla., used a backhoe to dig fighting holes and trash pits for the brief stay.

Marines from 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment's Weapons Company, part of a reserve infantry unit based out of Springfield, Mo., with support from elements of motor transportation detachments from Ebensburg and Erie, Pa., established several observation points around the perimeter of the camp.

When the Seabees went to uncover the bodies at the grave sites, which were located a few hundred yards outside the camp, gun trucks from the company escorted them and provided protection at the otherwise unsecured location.

Throughout the five-day mission, which was conducted entirely outdoors, the temperature soared into the triple digits, leaving troops sweaty and fatigued but not sluggish.

"The heat has made it pretty miserable, but Marines are going to do their job whether it is 120 or negative 20," said Mroczek, a native of Marcellus, Mich.

The temperature aside, troops seemed happy to be doing their part to help convict Hussein and aid the Kuwaiti people. This dig unearthed 48 bodies.

"It's something that has to be done to prosecute Saddam Hussein, but it's not like they don't have a preponderance of evidence against him anyway," said Lance Cpl. Brenden C. Reary, 25, a reserve infantryman with Weapons Company and native of Rolla, Mo.

A preponderance indeed; last year, after securing Baghdad, the I MEF assessed 59 mass grave sites, diagramed the areas and questioned locals for information of the sites' histories.

The Kuwaiti government was missing a total of 605 people before the war with Iraq began, said Van Auken.

To date, 322 skeletal remains have been found, and 167 of them positively identified as Kuwaiti through DNA testing or comparing dental records at independent labs in Kuwait, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and India, said Van Auken. The rest have not yet been through the identification process.

The Regime Crimes Liaison Office is also coordinating the excavations of mass graves full of Kurdish and Shia Iraqis killed by Saddam in an effort to collect further evidence of crimes against humanity.

(Editor's Note: High-resolution photos are available by e-mailing the reporter at vallieresb@1fssgdm.usmc.mil)
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