Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are claiming to have executed 1,700 captured Iraqi government soldiers. The claim, made on Twitter, was supported by the posting of gruesome photos. Last week, the Iraqi government blocked social network sites, including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, slowing the movement of news throughout the country.
Many are worried that the conflict in Iraq could become genocidal. It has happened before. In the Iraq war in 2005-7, a series of reprisal killings of Shiites and Sunnis erupted throughout the country. The Sunni insurgents claimed that their victims in the mass execution were all Shiites. A statement from the office of the Shiites’ supreme spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, implored Iraqis, “especially those living in mixed areas, to exert the highest level of self-restraint during this tumultuous period.”
There are doubts about whether the mass execution actually took place. The insurgents’ claim and the authenticity of the photographs could not be verified. Erin Evers, the Human Rights Watch researcher in Iraq, said, “We’re trying to verify the pics, and I am not convinced they are authentic. As far as ISIS claiming it has killed 1,700 people and publishing horrific photos to support that claim, it is unfortunately in keeping with their pattern of commission of atrocities, and obviously intended to further fuel sectarian war.”
There were no reports of large numbers of funerals in the Salahuddin Province, the area where the executions were said to have taken place. However if the mass execution did happen, it would be the worst mass atrocity in either Syria or Iraq in recent years. Last year, the chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian suburbs of Damascus killed 1,400 people. Those attacks were later attributed to the Syrian government.
According to an Iraqi military intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the military was aware of the reported executions but it was unclear how many there were. He claimed that the insurgents were targeting anyone with a government affiliation, whether Sunni or Shiite. He said, “They are targeting anyone working with the government side, anyplace, anywhere.” A local journalist also reported that local reports said many of the victims were Sunnis as well as Shiites.
That officials in Salahuddin were aware of large-scale executions having taken place was also confirmed by Col. Suhail al-Samaraie, head of the Awakening Council in Samarra. It was reported that one of those executed by the insurgents was a police colonel named Ibrahim al-Jabouri. Al-Jabouri was the Sunni official in charge of the criminal investigation division in the key city of Tikrit in the Salahuddin Province.