CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – U.S.-led forces in Iraq failed to safeguard official documents belonging to Saddam Hussein’s regime and protect mass graves of victims, a human rights watchdog charged Thursday, saying that could affect the trials of the former Iraqi dictator and his colleagues.

Coalition forces failed to stop people stealing thousands of official documents in the months after the March 2003 invasion, Human Rights Watch says in a report, “Iraq: The State of the Evidence.”

The U.S.-led troops also failed to stop people from damaging some of the more than 250 mass graves in their search for the remains of relatives, the report said.

“Coalition forces subsequently failed to put in place the professional expertise and assistance necessary to ensure proper classification and exhumation procedures,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

“As a result, it is very likely that key evidentiary materials have been lost or tainted,” she said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.

U.S. officials declined immediate comment. “The Pentagon has not had the opportunity to review this report. It would be premature to comment at this time,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch said.

Saddam has been accused of ordering the killing of tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds who rose up against him in 1991 following the Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

He was arraigned July 1 in Baghdad on broad charges including killing rival politicians over 30 years, gassing Kurds in the northern town of Halabja in 1988, invading Kuwait in 1990 and suppressing the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings.

Eleven leading officials from his regime also face trial. Among them is Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his role in chemical weapons attacks against the Kurds.

Iraq’s interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, wants an early start to the trials, but U.S. officials say patience is necessary to ensure the proceedings meet the highest international standards.

Hania Mufti, Human Rights Watch’s representative in Iraq, said the failure to protect the mass graves and state archives may have led to the loss of some valuable evidence which could affect the trials.

Human Rights Watch urged Iraq’s interim government to set up multilateral bodies to protect the mass graves, conduct exhumations and monitor the handling of Saddam-era official documents.

On the Net:

Human Rights Watch web site:

AP-ES-11-03-04 2201EST

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