Journalists have found and mapped at least 72 mass graves in Iraq, the most comprehensive survey so far, and expect that many more will be uncovered as the territory that Islamic State controls in both Syria and Iraq continues to shrink.
In Syria, the Associate Press (AP) has obtained locations for 17 mass graves, including one that is believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of members of a single tribe who were killed when Islamic State took over their area. In at least 16 of the graves in Iraq, the territory is still too dangerous to excavate, and officials say they cannot even guess the number of dead.
According to AP, which has spent months investigating the issue, the number of known victims ranges from 5,200 to more than 15,000. Many of these are in Sinjar Mountain, where Islamic State launched an assault against the Yazidi minority in 2014.
The United Nations and others have accused Islamic State of carrying out a “genocide” against the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish group who follow a unique religion that has elements of both Christianity and Islam. Human rights groups say that as the graves, many of which are covered only by a thin layer of dirt, deteriorate, it will be harder to prove the killings and prosecute those behind it.
An estimated 3000 Yazidi women are still in Islamic State captivity. Many of them are being used as sex slaves or “wives” by Islamic State fighters.
The AP report found that there are still graves that cannot be reached. For example at the Badoush Prison in Iraq in 2014, Islamic State reportedly killed 600 male inmates. Satellite footage shows a patch of scraped earth and tire tracks, according to photos obtained by AllSource Analysis, an imagery intelligence firm.
The reports of the details of the mass killing come as the Iraqi government hanged 36 Islamic State members who killed about 1,700 Iraqi soldiers who were forced to lie face down in a ditch and machine-gunned to death in 2014.
The Iraqi army, with the help of the Kurdish fighting force, the Pesh Murga has succeeded in pushing Islamic State out of more than half of the territory that they once controlled in Iraq. There are also concerns about human rights abuses by government-backed militias.
Human Rights Watch says that child refugees are being recruited from camps in Iraq to fight Islamic State. The groups says that government-backed tribal militias have taken children from at least one displaced persons camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq to fight the jihadist group near Mosul.
Residents of the camp told HRW that at least two militia groups fighting against ISIS are made up entirely of refugees and have been recruiting from the camp for months. The witnesses said that earlier this month, two large vans arrived and took away 250 new fighters, at least seven of whom were under 18.
“The recruitment of children as fighters for the Mosul operation should be a warning sign for the Iraqi government,” Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at HRW, told The Media Line. “The government and its foreign allies need to take action now, or children are going to be fighting on both sides in Mosul.”
He added the US should urge the Iraqi government to ensure troops supporting them don’t have under 18s in their ranks.
“The battle for Mosul should not be fought with children on the front lines,” he said.
The report comes as the government, backed by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, is gearing up for an assault on Mosul, a city of 2.5 million people in northern Iraq, and the last large area held by Islamic State. Analysts say that retaking Mosul would mean an end to Islamic State control in Iraq.
“There is momentum against Islamic State and the Iraqi government would like to take advantage of this and apply more pressure on Islamic State,” Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst based near Mosul told The Media Line. “But there are still questions about who will participate and what will be the political arrangement once Islamic State is cleared from the land.”
The Peshmerga have long wanted an independent Kurdish state in parts of Iraq and Syria.