Did ISIS really kill 1,700 prisoners in Iraq?

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June 16 2014 12:34 PM

Just How Bad Are the Atrocities Being Committed in Iraq Right Now?

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A photo released by ISIS purportedly showing the moments before the execution of captured Iraqi soldiers.

An image originally released on the jihadist website Welayat.

ISIS, the extremist rebel group that continues to gain more territory in Iraq, released photos over the weekend thatappear to show the mass execution of captured Iraqi troops, and has boasted of killing as many as 1,700 soldiers in the captured city of Tikrit. The photos show men in plain clothes being led into a ditch and executed. "They're walking to death by their foot," read the caption on one.

This would be the worst single mass atrocity committed in the region in recent years, including the 2013 chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces that nearly prompted an international intervention in Syria.

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The Iraqi military says the photos are authentic and that mass executions have taken place. Not everyone is quite so sure about the specifics. The BBC points out that ISIS typically releases videos of its operations, rather than still images, which are more difficult to verify. A Human Rights Watch researcher who examined the photos told the New York Times, “I am not convinced they are authentic.”

The numbers and particular images aside, the reports of atrocities against both captured troops and civilians by ISIS are pretty widespread at this point. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said her office has received reports that militants “rounded up and killed Iraqi soldiers as well as 17 civilians in a single street in Mosul” as well as numerous of incidents of summary executions in cities captured by the group. Massacres by the groups are reportedly still taking place on the Syrian side of the border as well.

The U.S. is currently mulling airstrikes against ISIS as well as considering perhaps unprecedented cooperation with Iran, but in the meantime, it’s clear that the situation on the ground in areas captured by rebels is becoming extremely grim.

It’s also possible that foreign governments are avoiding playing up the reports of ISIS atrocities in order to avoid retaliatory violence against Sunni civilians by the Iraqi military or Shiite militias. ISIS is clearly the primary perpetrator of atrocities at the moment, but the human rights record of Maliki’s forces isn’t exactly spotless.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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