Kurds Thursday examined a massive grid of unmarked graves here in what had been a closed military-industrial zone until the Iraqi government's collapse. They say the remains found in one of two exhumed graves indicate that the regime of Saddam Hussein murdered and buried up to 2,500 civilian victims here.
However, it remains unclear whether the more than 100 neat rows of small, grassy knolls could also be what Iraqi military officials told grave diggers they were: a graveyard for unidentified soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war.
That war ended in 1988, with a Kurdish uprising that Saddam Hussein crushed in a brutal campaign known as "Anfal." Kurds say that 182,000 people were killed or went missing during this period; many were imprisoned and driven from their homes.
The remains of a woman in civilian clothing was found in one of the two graves exhumed by Kurds working for the media office of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), which is acting as an interim governing authority here.
"She had blond hair and wore a red track suit, which had a lot of blood on it," says Kamran Abdul Rahman. The bodies, he says, had been inside a plastic bag which was then placed inside a coffin.
That the people buried were apparently in coffins, according to Rahman and a man who said he was involved in digging the ditches for the site, raises uncertainty as to whether this was actually a place where Saddam Hussein would have buried Kurdish victims.
A Kirkuk man says that while working as a laborer in 1988 he was paid to measure the size of the trenches in which the deceased were placed. The measurements of the wooden coffins seemed to stay in his mind as though they were done yesterday: 30 inches wide at the top, 23 in the middle and 15 at the bottom.
The man, who would only gave his name as Shuwani, says he watched as the coffins were unloaded from trucks on a summer's day.
"They said they were carrying soldiers' remains that had been sent back from the front, from the Iraq-Iran border, but it's clear they were lying," he said. "The truck was still dripping with lots of blood," he says, leading him to believe the victims had recently been shot.
Other witnesses say the gravesite was also used in 1991. One man said he was an Iraqi soldier in 1991 when he saw truckloads of bodies brought here just before the Gulf War started. Ali Mahmoud, says that Hussein's security forces arrested many Kirkuk residents, who were planning an uprising against the regime. Mr. Mahmoud claimed they were 2,000 to 3,000 victims brought here in the beginning of January 1991.
Kurdish officials have ordered exhumation at the site to stop until a London-based human rights group called Indict arrives to investigate the allegations further.