AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- To the naked eye, the stretches of open desert looked barren and deserted. But beneath the shifting sands was the suspected burial grounds of many of those killed under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
Marines of I Marine Expeditionary Force set off on a three-day convoy July 7, to gather information on mass graves in the Al Anbar Province.
Task Force Justice, originally formed by I MEF during its first deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom to examine mass graves in southern Iraq, is designed to help provide background information that will hold members of the former regime accountable.
"(The process) basically consists of going to the site, getting a grid coordinate of the site, site photographs and doing a diagram of the reported site," said Maj. Al Schmidt, the I MEF deputy force protection officer. "Then we find and talk to the local people in the proximity of the site that verify that it is a site and get some general background on the site."
There are between 600,000 to one million Iraqis who have been categorized as "missing" in Iraq.
"It has also been suggested that the missing may be in up to 500 mass graves that some estimate may be in Iraq," said Schmidt.
The gravesites scattered across Iraq date back to the beginning of the former regime.
A mass grave is defined as three or more remains in one gravesite. Unfortunately, the estimated numbers of remains is much higher.
"Task Force Justice has been to graves that had less then ten remains and mass graves that supposedly had thousands of remains," said Schmidt.
Marines and Sailors providing security, medical care and transportation for the mission felt a strong sense of purpose, but were hesitant about standing atop the remains of thousands of presumed executed Iraqis.
"I was taken by a strong sense of apprehension," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher S. Ackers, a corpsman with I MEF Headquarters Group and a native of Appomattox County, Va. "I had to remind myself of the good that would be done by giving these families their loved ones back, and by showing the world what the people of Iraq have been forced to see for generations."
Task Force Justice has been cataloging and assessing myriad mass grave sites since OIF-I. Eventually, the sites will be thoroughly excavated in an attempt to bring a measure of healing and closure to the countless families affected by these tragedies.
Native Iraqis working with the mission were few, but felt honored to be involved with the process.
"If we find the bodies... all of the people of Iraq will be sure that (Saddam Hussein) is a monster, a bastard," said Ansam S. Ahmad, a Baghdad native and interpreter working with Marines on the sites.