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In western Iraq, authorities have discovered a mass grave. They say it holds the remains of more than 800 people thought to have been killed during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It's believed the country has hundreds of mass graves from the Saddam era, plus countless new graves from more recent conflicts. But not all sites get the same treatment.

NPR's Kelly McEvers drove into the desert of western Iraq and sent this report.

KELLY McEVERS: So, we're climbing down into the pit our colleague, Ali, is showing us.

Mr. KHUDEIR HAMDAN (Director, Human Rights Ministry): (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: So this is one person here?

Mr. HAMDAN: (Through translator) So, this is the remains of one person here with all his belongings.

McEVERS: When we say person, we mean a skeleton. That's about all that's left. And so you have the hip bone and the joints, vertebrae. Here's a skull with a bullet hole right in the top of the skull.

Local human rights chief Khudeir Hamdan says teams will take these skulls and test their DNA, then try to match them with DNA from families who have reported their loved ones missing.

Mr. HAMDAN: (Through translator) Some of the remains were dressed in military uniforms, and some were in civilian clothes. And some were women. Some were children.

McEVERS: Hamdan says the victims are thought to be Kurds or Shiites, the main groups that rose up against Saddam and the same groups that are in power today.

Mr. HAMDAN: (Through translator) It fills me with grief and with pain and with bitterness, actually, because I know that those people have been killed and dumped in this way only because they have expressed their political opinions.

McEVERS: Sites like this will not be kept quiet for long. The government here is quick to denounce Saddam, who was sentenced to death and executed in 2006. But critics say the government is slower to highlight other human rights abuses.

Hamdan says it's in the ruling party's interest to play up the atrocities of Saddam.

Mr. HAMDAN: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Many people use such crimes for political gains, he says, in order to stay in power. But in some sense, they have a right to do that, he says. They lost a lot to Saddam.

Analysts in the West and in Iraq worry about this idea that there are winners and losers here; that the anti-Saddam Shiites have won, and the pro-Saddam Sunnis have lost. They say this kind of sectarianism could have dangerous repercussions in a country only a few years beyond a brutal sectarian war, especially now as sectarian divisions are beginning to surface outside Iraq as well.

Just last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a bloc of Sunni-dominated countries led by Saudi Arabia, threatened not to attend an Arab summit that was supposed to be held here next month, but has now been postponed. Many believe that's because Shiite-dominated Iraq supports anti-government protesters in Sunni-run Bahrain.

(Soundbite of shoveling)

McEVERS: Back at the grave, our colleague, a photographer, covers the remains with black body bags and shovels dirt on top so the bags won't fly away.

No matter which side you're on, another colleague says later, it's a site that no one should have to see.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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