of cadets who were slaughtered by Isis fighters near Tikrit, after the
city was recaptured by Shia militiamen and government soldiers last
Mass graves containing the bodies of 1700 Iraqi military cadets who
were slaughtered by Isis fighters last June are being opened by Iraqi
forensic teams who have gained access to them since the capture of the
nearby city of Tikrit.
Blue-suited forensic teams were shown by
Iraqi television digging in an open area, helped by bulldozers, as
family members stood nearby.
Iraqi security forces as they take back Tikrit. Photo / AP
As bodies were recovered, they were
labelled with yellow tags while weeping soldiers and relatives lit
candles and laid flowers alongside the covered remains. One clip showed
unearthed skeletal remains wearing combat boots that were still intact.
The Tikrit area is still insecure with some Isis fighters holding out in
the north of the city and the forensic workers were guarded by Iraqi
government soldiers as they began their work.
The unarmed cadets
from the base at Camp Speicher were taken prisoner by Isis forces as
they swept through northern and western Iraq during their blitzkrieg
advance after the declaration of an “Islamic State” last year.
Videos showed the cadets forced to lie face down by a shallow
trench, where they were sprayed with machine-gun bullets. Others were
taken to the bank of the Tigris river and shot in the back of the head
before being thrown into the water.
The massacre took place on 12
June last year and quickly became infamous because Isis made film of
the atrocities, showing masked gunmen shooting, beheading and choking
the young cadets. But the mass graves were previously inaccessible
because Tikrit and the area around it was controlled by Isis until about
a week ago, when a force of 25,000 Shia militiamen and soldiers
recaptured it after a month-long siege.
Teams of Iraqi soldiers
were assisting with digging at eight locations yesterday as they exhumed
the first bodies. The graves are mostly inside a complex of palaces
built by Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator, who came from
Tikrit. It has never been explained why so many cadets stationed at the
old American air base at Camp Speicher were ordered to change into
civilian clothes and flee south to their homes in Baghdad and beyond –
leaving them easy prey to rapidly advancing Isis forces.
account, the cadets were at first told by their captors that they were
going to be part of a prisoner exchange. It was only later they were
divided into batches to be more easily murdered.
Kamil Amin, from
Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry, told reporters that 12 bodies had been
exhumed on Monday and laboratory tests would be carried out to determine
their DNA. Families of the victims have already given DNA samples so
that the bodies of their relatives can be identified. Digging up all the
bodies is expected to take months. Mr Amin said that “the work is
continuing and we expect to discover more mass graves. We expect huge
numbers of bodies to be unearthed”.
A purpose of the massacres
carried out by Isis against Iraq’s Shia majority, aside from sectarian
bloodlust, is to provoke a reaction against the Sunni community as a
whole. This means that even those Sunni who do not like Isis are likely
to be treated as Isis supporters by Shia soldiers, militia and police
regardless of their real views. While Shia retaliation against Isis has
so far been on nothing like the scale of the Camp Speicher massacre,
Sunnis complain that they are being driven from their villages and some
of them have been murdered or kidnapped at pro-government checkpoints.
Speicher was not the only massacre carried out by Isis last year. The
first mass killing came during its June offensive, outside Mosul, when
they captured Badoosh prison and immediately split up Sunni and Shia
prisoners, then killing 600 of the latter.
Other victims of mass
killings since then include many members of the Albu Nimr tribe, which
fought against Isis for almost a year in Anbar and other provinces
before being overwhelmed because of a lack of ammunition. Tribal leaders
say that since last October, 864 members have been killed at different
times, their bodies being thrown down wells or taken out into the desert
The systematic murder of Shias by Isis has mirrored
that of al-Qaeda in Iraq since the first days of the US occupation in
2003. The preferred method before Isis became a powerful military force
was to send suicide bombers to mosques, markets or pilgrimage sites
where the explosion would cause maximum casualties.
of the Camp Speicher victims are enraged that their relatives should
have been left defenceless as Isis closed in. Though there were many
Iraqi soldiers in and around Tikrit, their commanders retreated without a
Camp Speicher was the worst single massacre in Iraq since
the US invasion of 2003. There was no previous atrocity on this scale
since Saddam Hussein massacred as many as 10,000 Shia near Hilla in
1991, in the aftermath of the failed Shia uprising. As at Camp Speicher,
victims were chosen because they were Shia, machine-gunned as they
stood by deep ditches in which they were then buried by bulldozers. As
at Camp Speicher a handful survived by pretending to be dead and then
crawling away after the firing squads had departed.