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Searching for clues amid grisly evidence

BAGHDAD - The red-and-white identification card was faded. But the name was legible, and the picture of the man with the necktie and tidy mustache was clear.

BAGHDAD - The red-and-white identification card was faded. But the name was legible, and the picture of the man with the necktie and tidy mustache was clear.

Rashid Aboud Awad, who worked in a medicine-storage facility in Ramadi, was last seen alive by his wife and children when he went off to swim in nearby Lake Tharthar, once Saddam Hussein's favorite fishing spot and more recently part of an al-Qaeda in Iraq stronghold west of Baghdad.

Awad's remains were discovered this week in a mass grave with more than 20 other bodies near the lake surrounded by rugged and sun-bleached scrubland.

More than 150 bodies have been unearthed in recent months from mass graves around Lake Tharthar. It is seen as the grisly legacy of al-Qaeda in Iraq's control of western deserts until it was ousted early this year in an uprising of local tribes. The revolt was spurred, at least in part, by the tribes' claims of extremist brutalities.

Each mass grave uncovered around Tharthar and elsewhere in Iraq - so far at least 12 burial sites - appears to offer more evidence of the fate of Iraqis who challenged al-Qaeda in Iraq and its backers.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not alone in being accused of atrocities after Hussein's fall. Shiite death squads and others have taken thousands of lives in Iraq's sectarian meltdown.

But the mass graves turning up in former al-Qaeda in Iraq territory help explain the decision by Sunni tribal leaders to fight back. U.S. and Iraqi commanders say the groundswell helped drive al-Qaeda in Iraq from the belts around Baghdad and forced extremists to hunt for new havens in northern Iraq.

Awad's Health Ministry ID card, which expired April 1, was a rare solid lead to attach a name to a body found in a mass grave. His relatives recognized pieces of his clothing, a hospital official said. It was unclear when Awad died, but experts said it appeared to be less than a year ago.

Of the 23 sets of remains in the grave, authorities were able to identify only Awad and two others. That is typical in Iraq, where officials usually lack such forensic aids as DNA and dental records. In the vast majority of missing-person cases in Iraq, families are left guessing about what happened.

Whenever Madiha al-Ani, 75, hears that a mass grave has been found, she dispatches relatives to the hospital to search for signs of her son, who vanished en route home to Diyala from Baghdad in February 2006. She always hopes they will come back empty-handed so she can maintain the belief that he is alive.

Iraqi security forces have taken advantage of recent security gains to step up patrols in areas previously considered no-go zones, leading to the discovery of bodies near Lake Tharthar as well as in the volatile Diyala province and the Baghdad neighborhoods of Dora and Fadhl.

The mass grave found Dec. 2 near Lake Tharthar was one of a dozen unearthed since May that together contain remains of at least 287 people, according to an AP tally based on police and U.S. military reports. Six graves contained the remains of more than half the victims, 157.

Sixteen corpses - 12 decapitated and four shot in the head - were found Wednesday by Iraqi soldiers near the Diyala city of Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi army said.

Still, the number of bodies found is a fraction of the estimated 375,000 Iraqis who have vanished as a result of checkpoint kidnappings and other violence by Sunni and Shiite extremists.

Adel Muhsin, the Health Ministry's inspector general, expressed hope that authorities could take advantage of a relative lull in violence to make progress in identifying the dead. "In the past, we were busy with the bodies from the explosions and violence. . . . Now, we have a little freedom to do so."