Forensic experts in Tikrit have begun the delicate and gruesome task of exhuming mass graves believed to contain the remains of up to 1,700 Shia soldiers captured and killed by the Islamic State during the Sunni jihadists' sweeping advance across Iraq last June.
Graphic images of the soldiers being forced into trucks and shot en masse with their hands tied while lying face down in a ditch were posted to social media last year shortly after the men were captured whilst trying to flee the IS advance. Other videos circulated online showed more executions taking place inside the grounds of the palace of former President Saddam Hussein and bodies being tossed into the Tigris River.
Up to eight mass burial sites have been found inside Hussein's palatial complex, which was used by IS as a headquarters, and four more graves are thought to have been discovered in the surrounding area. The locations appear to match some of those identified last year by Human Rights Watch, which used eyewitness accounts, photos, videos and satellite images to locate the graves.
More sites may still be uncovered as parts of the palace grounds are still being cleared of IEDs.
On Tuesday, survivors of the attack — known as the "Speicher Massacre" for the name of the soldiers' camp, which was previously a base for US troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq — visited the burial sites alongside relatives of those killed. Flowers were laid at the partially uncovered graves, and Iraqi soldiers stood to attention for the country's national anthem and Shia mourning songs, before firing shots in the air. Some excavated bodies wrapped in plastic lay on the dirt ground nearby.
Iraqi authorities have said that the remains will be DNA tested to confirm that these are the bodies of the captured soldiers.
"We dug up the first mass grave site today. Initial indications show indisputably that they were from the Speicher victims," Khalid al-Atbi, an Iraqi health official, told Reuters on Sunday.
"It was a heartbreaking scene. We couldn't prevent ourselves from breaking down in tears. What savage barbarian could kill 1,700 persons in cold blood?" he added.
Talking to reporters at the scene, one man who escaped the massacre by lying in a ditch and pretending to be dead sobbed and called out the name of his friend "Assad," who survived the execution attempt but was not able to swim across the river to safety due to other severe injuries.
Tikrit has been the scene of fierce fighting on several occasions and changed hands repeatedly. In 2003, it was taken by US-led forces during the invasion of Iraq with little resistance, but was subsequently subject to several insurgent attacks. In 2014, after the American withdrawal from the country, fighters from the Islamic State captured Tikrit and remained ensconced there until the city fell to Iraqi forces last week after a month of ferocious battle.
Much of Tikrit's civilian population — 260,000 people in 2002 — is thought to have long fled the city but human rights groups say some, mainly the poor and elderly, have remained throughout the fighting.
The recapture of Tikrit has widely been billed as a victory by the Iraqi government and its western allies. However the involvement in the offensive of popular mobilization fronts and Iranian-backed Shia militia groups — which have vowed revenge for the Speicher killings and are not fully under the control of the Iraqi government — has prompted fears of reprisal attacks and further sectarian violence.
"All commanders in Tikrit need to make sure that their forces protect civilians," warned Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch last month as the battle for the city raged. "Past fighting raises grave concerns that Tikrit's civilians are at serious risk from both ISIS [the Islamic State] and government forces, and both sides need to protect civilians from more sectarian slaughter."
Having captured Tikrit, Iraqi forces are now expected to continue their push towards Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and an IS stronghold.
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