Two mass graves were discovered on Thursday containing some of the 300 members of the Sunni Muslim Albu Nimr tribe that ISIS had seized this week. The captives, men aged between 18 and 55, had been shot at close range, witnesses said.
The bodies of more than 70 Albu Nimr men were dumped near the town of Hit in the Sunni heartland Anbar province, according to witnesses who said most of the victims were members of the police or an anti-ISIS militia called Sahwa (“Awakening”).
“Early this morning we found those corpses and we were told by some [ISIS] militants that ‘those people are from Sahwa, who fought your brothers [ISIS], and this is the punishment of anybody fighting [ISIS]’,” a witness said.
The insurgents had ordered men from the tribe to leave their villages and go to Hit, 80 miles (130 km) west of Baghdad, promising them “safe passage,” tribal leaders said. They were then seized and shot.
A mass grave near the city of Ramadi, also in Anbar province, contained 150 members of the same tribe, security officials said.
The Awakening militia were established with the encouragement of the United States to fight Al-Qaeda during the US “surge” offensive of 2006-2007.
Washington, which no longer has ground forces in Iraq but is providing air support for Iraqi forces, hopes the government can rebuild the shaky alliance with Sunni tribes, particularly in Anbar which is now mostly under the control of ISIS, a group that follows an ultra-hardline version of Sunni Islam.
But Sunni tribal leaders complain that Shi’ite Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has failed to deliver on promises of weapons to counter ISIS’s machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and tanks.
Sheikh Naeem Al-Ga’oud, one of the leaders of the Albu Nimir tribe, said: “The Americans are all talk and no action.”
ISIS was on the march in Anbar this year even before it seized much of northern Iraq in June. As the government and fighters from the autonomous Kurdish region have begun to recapture territory in the north, ISIS has pressed its advances in Anbar, coming ever closer to Baghdad.
In the north, government forces said they were closing in on the city of Baiji from two sides on Thursday in an attempt to break ISIS’s siege of Iraq’s biggest refinery.
A member of the Iraqi security forces said they might enter the city in the next few hours but he acknowledged that roadside bombs and landmines were slowing the advance.
“Now we are close to the checkpoint of southern Baiji, which means less than 500 meters from the town,” he said, requesting anonymity. “We haven’t seen strong resistance by them [ISIS] but we are stopping every kilometer to defuse landmines.”
His account could not be independently confirmed.
ISIS fighters seized Baiji and surrounded the sprawling refinery in June during a lightning offensive through northern Iraq.
The group also controls a swathe of territory in neighboring Syria and has proclaimed a caliphate straddling both countries.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters entered the Syrian town of Kobani on Thursday to help efforts to push back ISIS militants who have besieged the town for the last 40 days.