DIWANIYA, IRAQ – No one disputes the horrific outcome: Iraqi military recruits were led off their base unarmed and murdered in the hundreds, machine-gunned in mass graves by the Islamic State, whose fighters boasted proudly of the killings on the Internet.
The massacre of the Iraqi Army detachment at Camp Speicher in June was unprecedented even by the standards of Iraq’s decade of sectarian war. It sent panic through the country and announced to the world that the Sunni militants of Islamic State were a new kind of foe, determined not only to seize and hold territory but to exterminate sectarian enemies who fell into their hands.
For the survivors and families of victims, the killers themselves are not the only villains in the story. They blame the government and local tribespeople in the surrounding province, who they say promised the recruits safe passage and allowed them to be led to their deaths.
Government officials dispute these accounts. They say there was no promise of safe passage, and the unarmed recruits left the safety of the base despite having been ordered to stay.
But more than two months after the massacre, the failure to provide a definitive account of what happened, or even any record of the victims, is undermining efforts to build a government that can unite the country.
“Our leaders were the reasons behind all these killings. . . . They forced us to leave Speicher,” said soldier Hassan Khalil Shalal, who escaped the massacre only after pretending he was dead, buried beneath a corpse.
“Our leaders confirmed to us the road is safe, protected by the tribes, and not to wear military clothes. They sold us to Islamic State,” he said from his home in Diwaniya, a three-hour drive south of Baghdad.
Mohammed Majul Hamoud, another survivor who returned to Diwaniya, said he blamed “both the tribes . . . and our military leaders.”
“If we had weapons no one could have captured Speicher, Tikrit or all the other places near it. We were 4,000 and no force could have confronted us. But we were sold and deceived.”
More than 100 relatives of the missing descended on Baghdad last week and stormed the parliament, enraged at the state’s failure to tell them the fate of their loved ones.
The families vandalized the parliament building, beat anyone they suspected of being lawmakers and shouted “thieves, thieves, they sold our sons” in an expression of disgust with Iraq’s political elite.
“We ask the government, parliament, outgoing prime minister and . . . every influential official: Where are our sons? If they are alive, tell us. If they are dead, give us their bodies!” said Rahi Chaffat Chiyad, whose son Aqil, 26, is missing.
On June 10, the group, then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, burst into northern Iraq, riding out of the desert to seize Mosul, the biggest city in the north. Iraq’s army, trained and equipped by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, mostly fled, abandoning American Humvees and arsenals of weapons to the fighters.
Within a day of taking Mosul, the fighters were barrelling through the Tigris River valley toward former dictator Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit, which they would swiftly capture with barely a fight.
Just outside the city, thousands of Iraqi troops found themselves besieged inside the al-Sahra air base, still known as Camp Speicher after a U.S. Navy pilot, the name it was given when it served as one of the main bases for American forces until they withdrew in 2011.
Hamoud belonged to a group of 1,500 new soldiers fresh from basic training. As word came of the Islamic State’s advance, the soldiers were sent to Speicher to regroup.
The new recruits like Hamoud had still not been issued rifles. When they arrived at Speicher they searched its armory for weapons but found it was empty, realizing they would be left unarmed when the fighters approached.
Much of the dispute focuses on the role played by the senior commander for the province, Gen. Ali al-Freiji, and his deputies.
According to Shalal, Hamoud and a third soldier who described the events, al-Freiji and his top officers stopped at Speicher and told the soldiers they had 15 days leave. After efforts fell through to evacuate the troops in a vehicle convoy or by air, al-Freiji announced an agreement had been brokered to allow them safe passage to walk out and find transport for Samarra, a city to the south, the soldiers said.
Al-Freiji was last seen by his soldiers on the morning of the massacre. State television reported that the general stayed in the Tikrit area, leading combat forces at another location.
Al-Freiji says the account given by survivors and family members is inaccurate: there was never an offer of safe passage, and the soldiers were never told to leave the base. The government had sent elite troops to protect those besieged, but the soldiers forced their way out, he told parliament.
“They forced their way through the gate. We had the counterterrorism force there to stop them going out,” al-Freiji said.
On June 12, tribesmen entered the base to escort them; most of the soldiers were afraid to go, Hamoud said. “The tribes assured us we are under their protection, and that we are going to Samarra.”
Outside the base, they filed into a long line. They marched on the main highway toward Tikrit. In front of the city’s university, they were ordered to lie face down and were handcuffed. “Anyone who moved or raise his head was shot.”
The soldiers were handed over to Islamic State fighters who led them on a 30-km march to Saddam’s old palace grounds, where they were blindfolded and executed.
Hamoud survived 11 days in captivity by convincing his captors he was a Sunni. He saw his brother and hundreds of others led out to be shot.
The Islamic State, which posted video and photographs of the graves on the Internet, said it killed 1,700 prisoners. Human Rights Watch says it has documented with satellite imagery and the Islamic State’s own photos and videos the deaths of between 560 and 770 soldiers, and believes the real toll is higher.
At least 3,000 people were taken from Speicher, the New York-based rights group says.
Political leaders have promised to conduct an investigation. But the families say the country’s political elite cannot be trusted to give an honest accounting of events that could show officials and tribal leaders to have been incompetent at best, and complicit in mass murder at worst. The Iraqi government has a long list of investigations into controversies that have never been published and remain under wraps.
“Nobody is answering properly what is going on. The families need clear answers,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “It’s very difficult to bridge this gap between the two versions of this story.”
For Hamoud, who still suffers from the psychological scars of his ordeal, every day seems to be a dream.
“I still think: was this a dream? Or reality?” Hamoud said. “Am I really still alive?”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.