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MAHAWEEL, Iraq (AP) - Villagers pulled body after body from a mass grave in central Iraq on Wednesday, exhuming the remains of up to 3,000 people they suspect were killed during the 1991 Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein's regime.
Uncounted bodies remained unearthed at the site, they said.
By every indication, the mass grave in a village outside Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad, is the largest found in Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam and his Baath Party government last month.
Hundreds of people from nearby towns and villages watched from behind a barbed-wire barrier as sets of remains were pulled from the field and set aside wrapped in plastic bags, sheets and blankets. Some of the bodies' skulls still had tufts of long hair, and officials said they probably were women.
Many of the onlookers were weeping, and some chanted: "There is no God but God, and the Baath (Party) is the enemy of God." Several women were holding pictures of their missing men.
Rafed Husseini, a doctor leading the group of local men doing the digging, said a total of 3,000 bodies had either been retrieved or located in the past nine days. About half remain unidentified while the rest have been identified mainly through documents found on the bodies, Husseini said.
He said local farmers who had witnessed some of the killings by Saddam's forces had alerted them of the mass graves. "They saw the crimes taking place but did not dare talk about them at the time," Husseini said.
Villagers from Mahaweel began the dig by bringing in a bulldozer to open up the site.
"We are organizing it and we are digging," said Abuzaid Dinar, the village headman. He said his dead father and brother were buried somewhere in the area, where several separate mass graves were spread out over about a half-mile-square area.
The excavation Wednesday came two days after Iraqis pulled bodies from a newly discovered mass grave near the southern city of Basra. That site was believed to contain remains of up to 150 Shiite Muslims killed by Saddam's regime after a rebellion in 1999.
Human rights groups believe Iraq is dotted with mass graves, many filled with victims of Saddam's brutal excesses. Villagers said that appeared to be the case with the latest site.
"About 20 percent of them were buried alive, because they had no bullet wounds, but their hands were tied and they were blindfolded," said Amer Shumri, an official from the governor's office in Hillah.
Shiites rose up against Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War but were crushed by the Iraqi leader and his police and military apparatus. Thousands of Shiites were killed.
Many Shiites had expected more U.S. help in their revolt. Some have expressed bitterness, saying the United States under former President Bush had not intervened to save them from Saddam's wrath.
Sukna al-Jbouri, who stood beside the barbed wire, said she had come to find her son Hilal, who was 19 when he was arrested in 1991.
"I was walking with my son in the street and the army came and picked him up," she said. "I tried to stop them but they took him, I don't know why."
U.S. Marines, who arrived earlier Wednesday to secure the site, planned to bring water and camouflage netting to protect onlookers from the blistering sun.
"We are to help facilitate the reunion of victims and families," said Capt. David Romley from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, who added that his unit had only heard about the site two days earlier. "They want to excavate the site themselves."
"We can take this evidence and present it to a future Iraqi judiciary," he said.
But Peter Bouckaert, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, criticized the U.S.-led administration in Iraq for not sending any forensic experts to Hillah and for allowing local people to excavate the graves.
"The way they're doing it is, they are destroying evidence," Bouckaert said at the scene Wednesday. "It's an absolutely shameful failure on the part of the U.S. government."
He said at least 200,000 people had disappeared in Iraq during the past decade, and that human rights groups knew the locations of many other mass grave sites throughout the country.
Elsewhere in Iraq on Wednesday:
_ A military vehicle overturned in northern Iraq, killing one U.S. soldier with the 101st Airborne Division and injuring another, officers and witnesses at the scene said.
_ The New York Times reported that the new U.S. administration for Iraq will now let U.S. forces shoot looters on sight to discourage the rampant lawlessness that has persisted for weeks.
_ The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research used coalition-run radio to call on people to return equipment that was looted from universities in the wake of the U.S. invasion.
(Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)