ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ — The tears now falling in the Abu Ghraib cemetery can't be counted. But the graves can be: 993 of them, victims of Saddam Hussein, marked only by yellow and black metal plates with crudely-painted numbers.
These were forgotten victims, most of them Shiite Muslims that their families say "prayed too much" or who opposed the regime, tucked behind a high wall a mile away from Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
They were forgotten, that is, until the American war against Mr. Hussein unearthed state-sanctioned murder and linked the anonymous numbers with the names of those buried here.
Now families are digging up the remains for reburial, and finding for the first time the physical evidence of Hussein's regime. Among the field of markers, number 659 was just another pile of earth, until the al-Atabi family arrived to claim their father, Fadil Sadoun.
"Come back, come back to your family, to your children!" pleads Fadil's daughter, Rabab, at the center of a clutch of women clad in long jet-black gowns who slap their faces in grief. "He's an unimportant man, with children. Why did you kill him?" she wails at her ousted president.
The US fought this war for strategic reasons: to destroy any of Iraq's remaining weapons of mass destruction, to advance US security interests in a post-Sept. 11 world, even--at least in the minds of many Iraqis--to control Mideast oil.
But on the ground in Iraq, tha fall of Hussein is yielding an overwhelming human story of great loss. Families have become gravediggers, sifting through dirt with their fingers to recover every bone and scrap of cloth of Saddam Hussein's legacy.
While these scenes may bring closure to families, they are painful nonetheless. And the families are only now starting to flock to this site.
"Be quiet. Slowly, slowly, that's it," says Fadil Sadoun's cousin Hassan Sadran Hussein, as he directs men with tattooed hands and heavy-stoned silver Shiite rings on their fingers, as they feel through the dirt three feet down in the grave.
"Search well, don't leave anything," Hassan says, when more of the skeleton is revealed, and more dirt clawed away with a shovel. "Take your time."
Bones pile up on a graveside blanket, making the sound of dry wood clattering together when more bones are added.
Fadil Sadoun was first taken by security police in 1991, and held at Abu Ghraib prison for two years. When the overtly religious man was arrested again in 1996, he didn't come home. Instead, he was executed in 1997, given a number, and buried.
The loss seems unbearable for son Mustapha, who weeps uncontrollably a few feet away, his tears staining his pale blue shirt. Other family members try to comfort him, and finally have to carry him away, to the van that brought a wood coffin to collect the patricarch's remains.
"Oh my father, my father!" Mustapha chants with a broken voice. "You should be happy-Saddam is gone."
As dawn turns into a hot, blindingly bright and windy morning, more families arrive with scraps of paper scrawled with numbers, and with rudimentary coffins in tow. They walk purposefully along the rows of graves, scanning the markers as if searching for a familiar face in a crowd.
Beneath their feet are the morbid secrets that will define the toppled regime. Bureaucratic efficiency was masterful here. Numbers of graves are finally being matched to names of missing political prisoners by custodians of the cemeteries, who can finally speak out.
The executioners may be gone, but the cruel pain they inflicted endures.
"These are the victims of the crimes of Saddam Hussein," says Mohamed Hussein, who dropped upon grave number 288-of his brother, Ali Hussein-when he found it. He clenched the dirt in his fists, broke down, and leaned for support on a coffin that had clearly been used before.
"Tell the world," he says. "My brother prayed, and they took him from the street." Ali's coffin was carried to a truck, and placed alongside another coffin. That one held the remains of a pair of brothers of a neighboring family, found in a single grave.
While Iraq's modern history is being written today with freshly revealed documents, the opening of Hussein's torture chambers, and the testimonies of officially sanctioned killers, it is the buried treasure here that tells Iraq's true story.
"This was to keep Saddam on his throne. He would do anything," says Jassim Mohamed, whose 70-year-old uncle, in grave number 886, was killed with his militant Islamic son at their home south of Baghdad in October 2000. "Anyone who opposed him, he would kill them."
Among the staunchest of those opponents was Tariq Abu al-Hewa, a 27-year-old militant who lay 20 feet away, in grave number 834. He was arrested in 1999, executed in 2000, and operated with an Islamist group--even using a nom de guerre--that tried to kill senior members of the ruling Baath Party.
"The security agents took him from the street while he was selling perfume," says brother Khalid Rahim Hussein, as he used his car keys as a knife to tear strips of white cloth to wrap Tariq's bones.
"Saddam was a criminal, a dictator, and fascist," says Khalid. "I thank the Americans a lot-we praise them for ending Saddam, with God's help."
"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have found the corpse," adds cousin Riath Idramis.
The cemetery compound is part of a larger public one just a mile or so from the prison. And though Hussein ordered a mass release of prisoners last October, to reward Iraqis for giving their leader a perfect 100 percent reelection result, evidence emerged Friday of much more recent, wartime killing.
At the entrance to the prison is a portrait of Hussein that reads: "There is no life without the sun; there is no dignity without Saddam." That dignity was destroyed for 13 men accused of spying, when they were caught using handheld Thuraya satellite phones.
Still wearing prison-issue uniforms of white with blue stripes, their bodies were dug up from a mass grave just outside the prison by men with shovels, alerted to the spot by the smell. The bodies had their eyes strung with white or black cloth blindfolds, and their hands were tightly bound behind their backs. Some seem to have been executed, with bullet holes in their heads.
As accused spies, most were apparently held in the same cell block as Newsday journalists Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman, and freelance photographer Molly Bingham, an American, and Johan Rydeng Spanner, a Dane. Those non-Iraqis were also charged with spying, but released during the war after eight days.
Former prisoner Ihsan Hussein Mohamed on Friday estimated that the 13 men, the alleged spies, had been executed no later than April 8-the day before American forces arrived in the heart of Baghdad, and pulled down the statue of Hussein.
These men were, perhaps, the last official victims of the regime.
And Hussein's henchmen may have been waiting for the 13 bodies to arrive at the bleak, windswept cemetery about a mile away, possibly to put them into the 14 unmarked, empty graves that already had been dug there, beyond the last marker for grave number 993.
Abadi Jabbar found himself there at those empty holes Friday, as he searched for the remains of tribal cousins. Already he had found five. Still missing, according to the scrap of paper gripped in his right hand: numbers 867, 974, and 977.
When asked what this scene told him about Saddam Hussein, he replied: "You are the great witness. You have seen it with your own eyes."