PM admits graves claim ‘untrue’
by Peter Beaumont
Downing Street has admitted to The Observer that repeated claims by Tony Blair that ‘400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves’ is untrue, and only about 5,000 corpses have so far been uncovered.
The claims by Blair in November and December of last year, were given widespread credence, quoted by MPs and widely published, including in the introduction to a US government pamphlet on Iraq’s mass graves.
In that publication – Iraq’s Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves produced by USAID, the US government aid distribution agency, Blair is quoted from 20 November last year: ‘We’ve already discovered, just so far, the remains of 400,000 people in mass graves.’
On 14 December Blair repeated the claim in a statement issued by Downing Street in response to the arrest of Saddam Hussein and posted on the Labour party website that: ‘The remains of 400,000 human beings [have] already [been] found in mass graves.’
The admission that the figure has been hugely inflated follows a week in which Blair accepted responsibility for charges in the Butler report over the way in which Downing Street pushed intelligence reports ‘to the outer limits’ in the case for the threat posed by Iraq.
Downing Street’s admission comes amid growing questions over precisely how many perished under Saddam’s three decades of terror, and the location of the bodies of the dead.
The Baathist regime was responsible for massive human rights abuses and murder on a large scale – not least in well-documented campaigns including the gassing of Halabja, the al-Anfal campaign against Kurdish villages and the brutal repression of the Shia uprising – but serious questions are now emerging about the scale of Saddam Hussein’s murders.
It comes amid inflation from an estimate by Human Rights Watch in May 2003 of 290,000 ‘missing’ to the latest claims by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, that one million are missing.
At the heart of the questions are the numbers so far identified in Iraq’s graves. Of 270 suspected grave sites identified in the last year, 55 have now been examined, revealing, according to the best estimates that The Observer has been able to obtain, around 5,000 bodies. Forensic examination of grave sites has been hampered by lack of security in Iraq, amid widespread complaints by human rights organisations that until recently the graves have not been secured and protected.
While some sites have contained hundreds of bodies – including a series around the town of Hilla and another near the Saudi border – others have contained no more than a dozen.
And while few have any doubts that Saddam’s regime was responsible for serious crimes against humanity, the exact scale of those crimes has become increasingly politicised in both Washington and London as it has become clearer that the case against Iraq for retention of weapons of mass destruction has faded.
The USAID website, which quotes Blair’s 400,000 assertion, states: ‘If these numbers prove accurate, they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.’
It is an issue that Human Rights Watch was acutely aware of when it compiled its own pre-invasion research – admitting that it had to reduce estimates for the al-Anfal campaign produced by Kurds by over a third, as they believed the numbers they had been given were inflated.
Hania Mufti, one of the researchers that produced that estimate, said: ‘Our estimates were based on estimates. The eventual figure was based in part on circumstantial information gathered over the years.’
A further difficulty, according to Inforce, a group of British forensic experts in mass grave sites based at Bournemouth University who visited Iraq last year, was in the constant over-estimation of site sizes by Iraqis they met. ‘Witnesses were often likely to have unrealistic ideas of the numbers of people in grave areas that they knew about,’ said Jonathan Forrest.
‘Local people would tell us of 10,000s of people buried at single grave sites and when we would get there they would be in multiple hundreds.’
A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘While experts may disagree on the exact figures, human rights groups, governments and politicians across the world have no doubt that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and their remains are buried in sites throughout Iraq.’