BAGHDAD – The United States on Sunday condemned a “horrifying” massacre by Islamic militants said to have killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers as they advanced on the capital after seizing vast swaths of northern Iraq.
Iraq said it had “regained the initiative” against fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as grisly reports emerged of atrocities committed during their lightning offensive.
The pictures on a militant website appear to show masked fighters of the ISIS loading the captives onto flatbed trucks before forcing them to lie face-down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs. The final images show the bodies of the captives soaked in blood after being shot at several locations.
Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed the photos’ authenticity and said he was aware of cases of mass murder of captured Iraqi soldiers in areas held by ISIL. He said that an examination of the images by military experts showed that about 170 soldiers were shot to death by the militants after their capture.
Captions on the photos showing the soldiers after they were shot say “hundreds have been liquidated,” but the total could not immediately be verified.
Tweets attributed to ISIS claimed they had killed 1,700 Shiite soldiers.
“The claim by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that it has massacred 1,700 Iraqi Shia air force recruits in Tikrit is horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, referring to the group by another translation of its name.
“While we cannot confirm these reports, one of the (group’s) primary goals . . . to set fear into the hearts of all Iraqis and drive sectarian division among its people.”
On Friday, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned against “murder of all kinds” and other war crimes in Iraq, saying the number killed in recent days may run into the hundreds. She said in a statement that her office had received reports that militants rounded up and killed Iraqi soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul. Her office also heard of “summary executions and extrajudicial killings” after ISIS militants overran Iraqi cities and towns, she said.
The grisly images could sap the morale of Iraq’s security forces, but they could also heighten sectarian tensions. Thousands of Shiites are already heeding a call from their most revered spiritual leader to take up arms against the Sunni militants who have swept across the north in the worst instability in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
ISIS has vowed to take the battle to Baghdad and cities farther south housing revered Shiite shrines.
ISIS and allied Sunni militants captured a large part of northern Iraq last week, including the second-largest city of Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, as Iraqi troops, many of them armed and trained by the U.S., fled in disarray, surrendering vehicles, weapons and ammunition to the extremist group, which also fights in Syria.
The photos of the Iraqi soldiers purported to have been killed did not provide a date or location, but al-Moussawi said the killings took place in Salahuddin province. Its capital is Tikrit.
The photo captions said their deaths were to avenge the killing of an ISIS commander, Abdul-Rahman al-Beilawy. His death was reported by both the government and ISIS shortly before the al-Qaida splinter group’s lightning offensive.
“This is the fate that awaits the Shiites sent by Nouri to fight the Sunnis,” one caption read, apparently referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Most of the soldiers in the photos were in civilian clothes. Some were shown wearing military uniforms underneath, indicating they may have hastily disguised themselves as civilians to try to escape.
Some of the soldiers appeared to be pleading for their lives; others seemed terrified.
All the soldiers appeared to be in their early 20s, with some wearing European soccer jerseys. Some of the militants wore black baggy pants and shirts, many of them had sandals or flip-flops.
Iraqi authorities appear to be trying to limit the dissemination of such images and other militant propaganda being shared through social media and to deny the militants their use for operational purposes.
Martin Frank, the CEO of IQ Networks, an Internet service provider in Iraq, said that authorities have ordered multiple social media sites, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, to be blocked. On Sunday, they tightened the restrictions further by telling network operators to halt traffic for virtual private networks, which allow users to bypass Internet filters.
Internet traffic in several areas overrun by militants, including Mosul and Tikrit, was ordered cut off altogether, he said. No time frame was given for the shutdowns.