Two mass graves that appear to contain the remains of as many as 7,000 people killed by Saddam Hussein's government have been discovered in southern Iraq, according to a government minister.
The government may use some of the remains to build its case against alleged war criminals, including Saddam, said Dr. Bakhtiar Amin, human rights minister, on Friday.
Iraqi officials said they have not yet been able to excavate the burial grounds found earlier this year because of security concerns and because Iraq lacks enough forensic workers to perform the grisly task.
Amin said several of his investigators recently visited the sites and calculated the number of bodies by surveying the contours of the graves and interviewing people who witnessed the burials.
The largest of the grave sites is in a deserted area near the southern port city of Basra, where Saddam's Sunni-led government waged a brutal campaign against a Shiite Muslim uprising following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Amin said 5,000 bodies of people involved in the uprising might be buried there.
Amin said the rest of the bodies were found in Samawa in south central Iraq.
"We have found about 2,000 remains in the Samawa area of the family of Massoud Barzani," Amin said, referring to the current chief of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two most powerful Kurdish organizations in Iraq, and a longtime leader of a guerrilla movement against Saddam.
Saddam's army detained 8,000 of Barzani's clansmen in their homeland in northern Iraq in 1983, and they were never heard from again.
If the ministry's estimates are correct, the two mass graves would be among the largest of 290 secret burial sites reported to have been found in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago. Iraqi human rights investigators estimate that between 600,000 and 1 million people disappeared during Saddam's rule.
Meanwhile, an important Sunni cleric urged President Jalal Talabani to buck U.S. pressure and free thousands of suspected rebels, a sign the religious group most often associated with the Iraqi insurgency might be willing to work with the new government.
If Talabani "wants to begin a new page, he must first release those in jail," Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, a cleric in the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, said during Friday prayers. "Secondly, there must be a full pardon."
He also urged Talabani to refuse to "obey and kneel to pressure from" U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The United States has opposed freeing prisoners or pardoning insurgents. Most of the 10,500 detainees are held by the U.S. military.
It remains unclear how much say Talabani will have in his ceremonial post. Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari is putting together a Cabinet, and it isn't known if the new government backs a pardon.
Al-Samarrai's comments came three days after Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq and urged the emerging government to avoid politicizing the Iraqi military.
After he was sworn in as president this month, Talabani appealed to Iraq's homegrown militants to work with the newly elected leadership and suggested they could be pardoned, although he said the Iraqi government would continue to fight foreign insurgents.
There was no letup in violence, as militants set off four bombs that killed at least two civilians and wounded 14 in Baghdad, capping a bloody week of attacks and clashes.
A U.S. military spokesman announced that two U.S. soldiers died in fighting near Fallujah one on Wednesday, the other on Thursday.