Iraqi forensic teams have begun excavating 12 suspected mass grave sites thought to hold the bodies of up to 1,700 soldiers killed by Islamic State (IS) militants in the city of Tikrit.
The mass killings in summer 2014 of troops from the former U.S. Army base of Camp Speicher has become a symbolic example of the brutality of IS fighters who swept across northern Iraq and Syria last year.
The exhumations started on April 6, days after government security forces, backed by Shi'ite paramilitaries and air strikes conducted by a U.S.-led coalition, drove the militants from the hometown of late dictator Saddam Hussein following a monthlong siege.
Some of the burial sites are in Hussein's presidential compound.
Khalid al-Atbi, an Iraqi health official working with the forensic team, told Reuters news agency, "We dug up the first mass grave site today."
He said at least 20 bodies had been found so far and added, "Initial indications show indisputably that they were from the Speicher victims."
"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.
Human Rights Ministry official Kamil Amin told The Associated Press that DNA testing will be used to identify corpses once they have been exhumed.
IS militants captured some 1,700 mostly Shi'ite soldiers from Camp Speicher on the outskirts of Tikrit, about 140 kilometers from Baghdad, as the extremist group gained ground in an offensive in northern Iraq in June.
The IS extremist group claimed to have killed the troops shortly afterward and posted graphic videos and pictures of the executions on social media.
The Sunni militants have attacked Shi’ite Muslims, members of ethnic and religious minorities, and fellow Sunni Muslims they have accused of opposing them.
Focus On Mosul
Following the capture of Tikrit from IS forces on April 1, the Iraqi military is now expected to turn its attention to Mosul, located some 230 kilometers north of Tikrit.
During a visit to the Kurdish autonomous region on April 6, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said the Baghdad government would work with Kurdish authorities to liberate Nineveh Province, of which Mosul is capital, from IS militants.
“Our visit to Irbil is to cooperate and coordinate on a joint plan to liberate the people of Nineveh,” Abadi said at a joint news conference with Kurdish President Masud Barzani.
The Kurdish leader said the sides decided to establish a “joint committee with military personnel and experts” to work on how to cooperate.
In an interview to a German magazine, meanwhile, the Iraqi prime minister said the liberation of Tikrit was encouraging, but added that the IS extremist group was still a major threat.
Abadi told Der Spiegel that the IS group won't be defeated if it continues to recruit foreign fighters.
He said that around 57 percent of IS fighters were Iraqis but they did not cause any problems as they simply ran away when Iraqi troops entered towns.
"It is the 43 percent who are foreign fighters who have been indoctrinated ideologically who have their backs up against the wall," Abadi said.
He added that foreign security services needed to take action to protect young people from IS "in the same way they trace child pornography networks around the world."
The United States, which led a campaign that drove Hussein from power in 2003, has created a coalition to combat Islamic State extremists by military and other means.