Iraq, Iran swap remains of 1980-1988 war dead

U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment pray before heading out on patrol in Baqouba, , 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq and Iran on Sunday exchanged the remains of 241 soldiers killed during an eight-year war between the two countries - the latest sign of increased cooperation between the neighboring nations that were fierce rivals under Saddam Hussein.

It was the first such handover since the two sides signed an agreement in October to work together in tracing tens of thousands still missing after the war.

The Iraqis and the Iranians have previously exchanged remains and prisoners of war, but Sunday's pomp-filled ceremony raised hope that the agreement could lead to closure for the relatives of those killed or missing on both sides.

"We hope that this tragedy ends as soon as possible and this file is closed forever ... so that the families can have some rest after learning the fate and the whereabouts of their loved ones," said Mahdi al-Tamimi, an official in Iraq's Human Rights Ministry.

The remains of 200 Iraqis and 41 Iranians were returned to their native countries at the Shalamcha border crossing near the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Only 23 of the Iraqi and 10 of the Iranian remains have been identified, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversaw the handover.

Mourners threw roses on the flag-covered wooden coffins, crying and beating their chests as the remains were borne by Iraqi soldiers and Iranian sailors to the border from both sides. Women shrouded in black Islamic robes wept as a brass band played for the procession.

More than 1 million people from both sides were killed or went missing during the 1980-1988 war.

Iraq and Iran agreed in mid-October to work together to gather and share information about the missing and to hand over any remains uncovered. It was the first direct agreement to tackle the problem together. Previously, each side dealt separately with the Red Cross.

"The return of the bodies is important for the families of the dead and an essential element in the process of dealing with the past," said Jamila Hammami, an ICRC delegate in charge of the missing persons file for Iraq.

Hammami, who was at the handover ceremony, said many of the families never lost hope.

Hopeful relatives with missing loved ones attended the ceremony, but officials said nobody on the Iraqi side claimed any of the returned bodies.

Jawad Kadhum Hamadi, a 38-year old photographer from Basra, joined two others at the ceremony hoping to find the names of missing family members on the list of those remains identified as part of the exchange.

Hamadi's brother, Ahmed, has been missing since 1984 during fierce battles in eastern Basra with the Iranian forces.

"I didn't find his name in the lists," Hamadi said. "But yet, the hope inside me has not died."

Hamadi said he did not tell his parents, who are ill, about the exchange because he thought it would only upset them further.

"Even if I got his body, I would bury him without telling them," Hamadi said.

Relations between Iraq and Iran have dramatically improved after Saddam's 2003 ouster, which led to the empowerment of Iraq's majority Shiites after decades of oppression at the hands of the Sunni Arab minority, to which the late Saddam belonged.

A large segment of Iraq's ruling Shiite elite lived in exile for years in Shiite, Persian Iran before returning home after the U.S.-led invasion. Many of them continue to maintain ties with Iran, which the U.S. accuses of arming and supporting Shiite militants in Iraq.

Tehran denies this and says that, like Washington, it too wants to see a peaceful Iraq.