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Iraq's Government Is Excavating Mass Graves In A Former ISIS City

The graves in Tikrit are thought to contain some of the victims of a massacre of more than 1,500 soldiers last June. WARNING: This post contains graphic images.

Posted on April 7, 2015, at 8:15 a.m. ET

Iraq’s government announced last week that it had retaken the city of Tikrit from ISIS — its biggest victory yet against the hardline Islamist group, which began a surge across the country last summer.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi tours Tikrit on April 1.
Stringer / Reuters

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi tours Tikrit on April 1.

Iraqi forensic teams are now exhuming mass graves thought to contain the bodies of soldiers captured and killed in an ISIS massacre last June. The massacre quickly became a symbol of ISIS’s brutality.

Stringer / Reuters

Remnants of a body in a mass grave found in the presidential compound in Tikrit on April 6.

The forensic teams started unearthing bodies on Monday, working in eight locations inside Tikrit's complex of presidential palaces, an Iraq government spokesperson told the Associated Press.

Stringer / Reuters

A mass grave in the presidential compound in Tikrit on April 6.

In the June 2014 massacre, between 1,500 and 1,700 Iraqi soldiers and security force members were captured from the former U.S. army base Camp Speicher and killed, according to a UN report. It was ISIS's single deadliest reported attack thus far, according to Human Rights Watch, which puts the minimum death toll lower than the UN and says at least 770 of those abducted were executed.

A member of one of the forensic teams said his group had uncovered 20 bodies that they believed to be Camp Speicher victims, Reuters reported on Monday. It is not yet known how many bodies might be in the graves.

A number of mass graves are being found in northern Iraq in areas where ISIS has ceded territory, BuzzFeed News reported from three such sites in February.

Iraq's next big challenge is to recapture the city of Mosul, an ISIS stronghold and a much more difficult target. The campaign to recapture Tikrit required additional militias plus the eventual assistance of U.S. air support, raising concerns about the government's readiness to take back Mosul.