Iraqi forensic teams have begun the grim work of exhuming mass graves around the formerly ISIS-held city of Tikrit and taking account of the victims. What they have found tells a mind-shattering tale of horror.
“Islamic State militants overran Saddam Hussein’s hometown last June, capturing around 1,700 soldiers as they were trying to flee Camp Speicher, an air base previously used by U.S. troops on the outskirt of Tikrit,” writes the Associated Press. “The fall of Tikrit was part of the Islamic State onslaught that stunned Iraqi security forces and the military, which melted away as the militants advanced. Later, the Islamic State group posted graphic images online that appeared to show its gunmen massacring scores of the soldiers after loading the captives onto flatbed trucks and then forcing them to lay face-down in a shallow ditch, their arms tied behind their backs. Other videos showed masked gunmen bringing the soldiers to a bloodstained concrete river waterfront inside the presidential palaces complex in Tikrit, shooting them in the head and throwing them into the Tigris River.”
CNN spoke to one Iraqi soldier who survived the slaughter at Camp Speicher by playing dead. His captors threw him into the Tigris after they thought they had killed him, and he floated to safety. He said the Iraqi troops captured at the camp were told they would be kept alive for a prisoner swap — but the ISIS savages separated them into small groups and executed them.
Now that American air power has helped force the Islamic State out of Tikrit, the grim work of locating and identifying the remains of ISIS victims is under way. A representative of the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry told the Associated Press at least twelve bodies have been exhumed so far, while CNN upped the total to 47 by Wednesday afternoon. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as he expected to “discover more mass graves in different areas,” and expected “a huge number of bodies to be unearthed.”
It is thought that at least 800 captured Iraqi troops were executed near Tikrit, but the total could be over twice that large. The Iraqi government expects to be digging up graves for weeks to come.
“Iraqi state TV showed forensic teams digging in an open area, helped by bulldozers as family members stood nearby,” the AP reports. “The bodies were tagged with yellow tags while weeping soldiers and relatives lit candles and laid flowers alongside the covered remains. One clip showed unearthed skeletal remains still wearing combat boots.”
“When the first three bodies were found, 10 Iraqi soldiers saluted the dead by firing seven shots into the air. The national anthem was played while soldiers wept,” adds CNN.
There’s controversy in Iraq about how these soldiers fell into ISIS hands. Their families insist they were told to leave Camp Speicher without weapons, wearing civilian clothes, and fall back to Baghdad as ISIS advanced, but the Iraqi military describes them as deserters. Some relatives of missing soldiers hope they’re still alive in ISIS’s hands, and have journeyed all the way to Kurdistan in the north in search of them.