BAGHDAD, Oct. 7, 2006 — -- A system of iron weirs in the Tigris River 20 miles southeast of Baghdad was designed to prevent lily pads, known here as "Nile flower," from traveling down-river and clogging canals vital to farmers for irrigating Iraq's south.
But now, the weirs also catch corpses that float down from the capital, murder victims in the sectarian violence that blights Iraq.
Local police in the nearby town of Swaira say that since January 2005 they have collected 339 bodies of men, women and children from the filters. It's considered one of the highest numbers of corpses found in a single location in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"Every day, we find bodies in the river," an official at the Swaira police force's crime department told ABC News. "Most of them are of Iraqis living in the bloody areas to the south of Baghdad."
Among the 339 corpses was that of British aid worker Margaret Hassan, abducted in October 2004 in western Baghdad.
Identifying the bodies is no easy task. Many have spent more than 10 days in the water. Some are mutilated or have been eaten by fish. Identifying features such as scars and tattoos, as well as distinctive clothing, are sometimes the only means of verifying their identity. So far, only 91 bodies have been identified by their families.
Once recovered from the river, bodies are photographed at the police station, and if they remain unclaimed after a day, they are sent to the morgue in Baghdad.
Most of the corpses are young people who have been shot and then hacked to pieces, according to the head of the Swaira police force, who asked that his name not be printed.
"Swaira County is in the southern death triangle of Baghdad," the police force head noted.
The Tigris River is not the only place where bodies are found. Others include a sewage treatment plant in the southern Baghdad suburb of al Rustomia, and the Al Maleh canal that irrigates farming country to the west of Baghdad. It's a predominantly Sunni area where many Shiite pilgrims have been killed over the past two years in towns like Latifia, Yousofia and Mahmodia.
Imad Abdullah, 35, had four relatives who worked on farms in the Boaitha area south of Baghdad abducted on May 7. Abdullah found the bodies of his brother and cousin two weeks later at Swaira police station, where they had been taken after being fished out of the river. Another cousin's corpse was at the Baghdad morgue. His other brother is still missing.
Abdullah said he was advised to go to Swaira to look for their bodies.
"It's what many families do when they are looking for missing relatives," he said. "Terrorists dump the bodies in the river to terrify those who live and work along its banks."
Fisherman Mohammed Hussein told ABC News that he used to discover more than 10 bodies a day floating in the Tigris River where it flows by the Baghdad neighborhood of Al Rashdia.
"We used to fetch them out," he said, "but now there are so many we leave them. Otherwise, there would be no time for fishing."
At one point, work was disrupted at a nearby water filtering plant that provides Baghdad with drinking water when two corpses became stuck in the main pipeline.
"It was the most horrifying sight I had seen in my whole life," said Kareem Ali, an employee at the plant. "Flesh and blood mixed with water. I have [seen] dead animals before, but it was the first time I had seen human remains. It was horrible."