Sonny Trimble's grave undertaking: unearthing the victims of Saddam's slaughter.

The Kurds who wore extra clothing — like the little girl dressed in eleven layers at Ninawa — probably thought they could carry more that way. As for the Shiites in pajamas, their assassins may have surprised them in the night, adds Trimble.

Investigators in the next tent, "Cultural Artifacts," dress wooden mannequins with each person's clothing and snap a photograph to re-create the victim's likeness for the court.

"It really brings these people to life," says RCLO lawyer Eric Blinderman. "You can see a woman shot while pregnant — she's wearing an oversized dress with something underneath it to simulate the fetus."

courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble
courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Da
Michael "Sonny" Trimble

"We went to the lab a couple weeks ago to give a press tour to Westerners and Arabs," Blinderman adds. "When we walked into the cultural-artifacts tent and saw the mannequins, multiple members of the Arabic media broke down."

The bones are wheeled on gurneys from "Intake" to "Anthropology," where scientists use them to determine the person's age and gender, and document each sign of trauma with the help of X-rays. Jim Kister, the Chesterfield radiographer, says he recites an Islamic death prayer at the start of every exam. "The English translation is basically: 'I believe in only one God and Mohammed is his prophet.'"

In the last tent, pathologists study the case file and settle on the victim's cause of death. They have concluded every Kurd and Shiite exhumed by the Mass Graves Team died of "homicide based upon the physical evidence of trauma, multiple clothing defects and circumstances of death."

Trimble drifts among the different tents while his employees complete their chilling tasks. Later he will condense their data into a several-hundred-page report for the court.

At Ninawa, the 123 Kurdish women and children were likely forced one by one into the sloped, four-foot-deep grave and shot in the head. They pitched forward into the mass of corpses.

The Muthanna trench was shallower, with bullet casings scattered throughout. The shooters may have looked into the eyes of their 114 victims and sprayed the Kurds with AK-47 bullets. The men, women and children flung their hands in front of their faces — as if self-defense might spare them.

The most gruesome tale of all transpired at Karbala, where the Shiites were buried.

Like the other pits, it was wide as the ten-foot-blade of a front-end loader, whose teeth left an imprint on the desert floor under the bodies. The killers stood on the grave's lip, at the opposite end from the 29 victims. First they fired at some of the men's groin areas. They blasted others behind the knees. Then they swung their rifles left and right, hitting torsos and heads.

"Seeing that kind of trauma is almost more than you can bear," says Trimble. "We spent weeks — weeks — gluing skulls together just so we could document where the bullets hit them. We ran out of glue! We ran out. I've never had that happen to me before. An entire case of Duco Cement. One case usually lasts a year."

On a hazy, humid morning last month, Sonny Trimble enters Einstein Bros. Bagels in the Central West End. His gait is slow and slightly hunched. Crow's feet spread from his eyes to his hairline. The skin on his arms is hairless and glossy, like the precious minerals sold as souvenirs in natural-history museums.

Nicknamed "Sonny" as a kid, after then-Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, Trimble was a nimble, if small, youth. It's hard to imagine him working up more than his daily walk on a treadmill these days. Two years in Iraq have worn him down.

"Initially I think for my dad going to Iraq was like, 'Wow, what a neat place to be in my career,'" observes his daughter, 23-year-old Emily Trimble. "But to go back as many times as he has — he's really put it before anything else in his life. I think these people have become very important to him."

Trimble is home on a two-month hiatus. Still, he talks every day to his deputy in Baghdad, and he'll stay up this night writing a contract for the team's next dig. He doesn't have nightmares, but he doesn't sleep easily. Over the next few days he begins conversations about Iraq with "I'm tired," "I'm tense," or "I'm stressed." He's not a religious man, but these days ends many of his e-mails with the word "Inshallah," meaning "God willing."

Trimble has his own view of the war. For one thing, he thinks Iraq might be a better place with 400,000 coalition troops on the ground instead of fewer than 150,000. He also believes speedy rotations and officers' leaves are sabotaging the mission. "Nobody trains the next person doing the job," he says. "The main reason our project is so successful — I don't think it's because of my leadership. I think it's because I keep really good people there for a year and a half."

A registered Democrat, Trimble did not vote for President Bush. But he did support the March 2003 invasion. "I thought when we were going in for WMD and to get rid of a guy that was involved in genocide, [that] was an important thing. When you come to a point where you see the WMD aren't there, that requires a reassessment. But I don't know what that reassessment is. The policy experts and guys that are generals who have voiced their opinions have a lot wider view than I certainly had on the ground."

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