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Rights group finds mass graves in Tikrit, Iraq

Rights group finds mass graves in Tikrit, Iraq
Hamdi Alkhshali/CNN
Friday, June 27, 2014 - 6:40am

Two mass graves believed to contain the bodies of Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians killed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters and their militant allies have been discovered in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, a rights group said Friday, a find that comes amid growing claims of atrocities carried out by both sides as the conflict widens in Iraq.

The news of the Tikrit executions from Human Rights Watch comes the same day that Amnesty International released a report saying it has gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of "extrajudicial executions" of Sunni detainees by government forces and Shiite militias in the northern Iraqi cities of Tal Afar, Mosul and Baquba.

"Reports of multiple incidents where Sunni detainees have been killed in cold blood while in the custody of Iraqi forces are deeply alarming. The killings suggest a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis in retaliation for ISIS gains," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, who is currently in northern Iraq.

The revelations follow news that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told British broadcaster BBC that ISIS advances may have been avoided if Iraq had proper air cover in the form of fighter jets that Iraq has been trying to secure from the United States for some time.

"I'll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract" with the United States, al-Maliki told the BBC in an interview this week that was released early Friday.

Iraq has now turned to Russia and Belarus to buy fighter jets, he said. "God willing, within one week, this force will be effective and will destroy the terrorists' dens," he said.

Al-Maliki's statements about the need for air support come as American and Arab diplomats tell CNN that the United States is unlikely to undertake any military strikes against ISIS and its allied fighters before a new government is formed in Iraq.

But that is unlikely to happen quickly.

Parliament resumes Tuesday. Al-Maliki's political party controls 90 seats, the largest block of seats in parliament after April's elections. But whoever is the next prime minister will need at least 165 seats.

U.S. President Barack Obama has promised Iraq the aid of 300 U.S. military personnel to advise and train Iraq's security forces after a near collapse in the face of an ISIS advance in northern and western Iraq.

But there have been no U.S. airstrikes, something that Iraq's military commanders have said is desperately needed.

At the same time, disturbing claims have begun to surface, with detainees and relatives of those killed providing graphic accounts that suggest Iraqi forces killed Sunni detainees before withdrawing from Tal Afar and Mosul.

Both cities are under the control of ISIS, and Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias have been battling ISIS and militant allies in Baquba.

"Even in the midst of war there are rules that must never be transgressed. Killing prisoners is a war crime. The government must immediately order an impartial and independent investigation into the killings, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice," Rovera said.

The Iraqi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations. But it has previously denied reports that its troops have killed detainees and civilians, calling them ISIS propaganda.

Using satellite imagery and publicly available photographs purportedly released by ISIS, Human Rights Watch says it appears that ISIS fighters in Tikrit executed three groups of men a short distance from former Iraqi leader Hussein's Water Palace on the banks of the Tigris River.

"The analysis suggests that ISIS killed between 160 and 190 men in at least two locations between June 11 and 14," the rights group said in its report. "The number of victims may well be much higher, but the difficulty of locating bodies and accessing the area has prevented a full investigation."

From the photographs posted online by ISIS, it appears the fighters killed the men at the site in at least three groups.

"The photographs show one group of men lying in one trench and a second group of men lying on top of the first. A third group of men is seen lying in a second trench," the group said.

Human Rights Watch says the photographs show a third mass grave, but investigators have been unable to find it.

CNN's Elise Labott, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report. 

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