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Faster Removal of Bodies Urged in Iraq

June 8, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. officials on Sunday defended the slow process of identifying Iraqi soldiers killed during the U.S.-led invasion after an Iraqi official in the Health Minister complained the United States isn’t doing enough to arrange formal burials.

Dr. Thamir Najim al-Shimari, head of the coalition-controlled ministry’s committee to find war victims, blamed ``slow action″ by U.S. authorities and misleading information for the mounting misery of the relatives of those soldiers.

``They are not doing it quickly,″ he said. ``They have listened to our demands several times, but have made no progress.″

He said many soldiers’ remains are still trapped in places where invading U.S. troops are stationed _ including the main airport, where heavy fighting took place. Talks with the American military are under way to move the bodies into formal graveyards.

``People are looking for their sons,″ al-Shimari said.

The number of Iraqi soldiers killed during the war remains unknown, and the United States says it does not intend to make a comprehensive count.

U.S. Army Col. Dan Gagliano, a senior military medical officer and commander of the medical brigade in Iraq, acknowledged the slow pace in handling the issue but said lengthy inquiries are needed before any action is taken.

``It seems that we are moving slowly, but collecting the information without any sort of way of having communication is really difficult,″ Gagliano said. ``We need to get information from the families and from those who have missing persons.″

He said U.S. administrators were exploring how to identify bodies, where to temporarily exhume them and what equipment to use.

Al-Shimari also said U.S. forces had played down the number of bodies buried on sites where fighting took place between Iraqi Republican Guard forces and U.S. Marines.

Gagliano suggested otherwise.

The people who run the airport believe there are less than a hundred bodies buried at the airport, Gagliano said. ``I don’t believe that the figure is in the thousands. I believe the figure is more in the hundreds and even less than 100,″ he said.

Immediately after the fighting at the airport, the U.S. Army dug at least 103 graves on the airport grounds and filled some, though it is unclear how many.

Talks about body removal have been under way between the United States, the Health Ministry and the International Committee of the Red Cross since May 11.

Al-Shimari said the ministry had asked for body bags, vehicles to transport remains, money to carry out the task and authorization to enter the airport, whose grounds remain tightly restricted to anyone but the American military and personnel it allows to enter.

Al-Shimari said he and his colleagues had been working on ``fact-finding missions″ to determine where bodies were located and who they were.

At one site, in the Neurology Hospital in Baghdad, 10 unidentified bodies were photographed and the pictures posted at mosques. Relatives claimed two sets of remains, and the others were taken to the holy city of Najaf and buried there, al-Shimari said.

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