Locator map of towns Taji and Kirkuk, Iraq
Kirkuk, Iraq

WASHINGTON - Iraqi officials say they have found a new mass grave that contains the remains of several dozen people who appear to have been executed on the spot by Islamic State in the disputed northern province of Kirkuk.

Yehia Rasool, military spokesperson for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, announced Tuesday on Twitter that Iraqi forces found the corpses of more than 50 people by chance as they were pursuing the IS remnants in the Dawud Aluka village in Riyadh subdistrict.

“They were executed by Daesh terror gangs during their rein over the village,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. Rasool didn’t provide further details on the identities of the victims.

Thousands of Iraqis have gone missing since 2014 when IS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, along with a large swath of territory in other parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Missing peshmerga soldiers

Among the missing in Kirkuk are several dozen Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were last seen in an IS propaganda video in 2015. The footage showed the soldiers in orange jumpsuits atop the beds of pickup trucks in a parade through the streets of Kirkuk’s Hawijah district.

Months after the video’s release, Kurdish authorities requested U.S. assistance for a joint commando raid on an IS prison where the peshmerga fighters were believed to be held.

Though they didn’t find any of the peshmerga fighters in that facility, the rare joint operation freed dozens of Iraqi army soldiers and civilians. A 39-year-old American officer, Joshua L. Wheeler, was killed in the operation after he voluntarily assisted his Iraqi partners who had come under enemy fire, according to the Pentagon.

Kurds are now looking to see if any of the newly found remains match the identities of their missing loved ones.

“It’s possible that peshmerga remains are among those found in the mass grave,” General Mohammed Regr, a Kurdish commander in Kirkuk, told VOA.

More mass graves

Those desperate for news about the fate of their loved ones in Iraq may never know what happened to them, according to human rights groups that have criticized the way Iraqi authorities handle exhumations.

“In my experience over the last few years in Iraq, the government has failed in most instances when they discover mass graves to properly manage the site by marking it off and then proceeding with exhumations — carrying out the forensic work needed to identify the remains and returning the remains to family members,” Belkis Wille, a senior crisis and conflict researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told VOA.

In November 2018, the United Nations published a report that documented the existence of 202 mass graves containing as many as 12,000 victims in IS territories across the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Anbar. The report cited myriad challenges facing the Iraqi government’s attempts to dig up mass graves, including a lack of resources, security issues and a lack of technical expertise.

“The majority of these sites,” the U.N. report said, “have not yet been excavated. Some are secured by the presence of Iraqi armed forces. Some have been enclosed by fencing. And some are contaminated by the presence of explosive devices.”

The report urged the international community to assist Iraq in the exhumation process to ensure the realization of a “meaningful truth and justice.”

With the help of the U.S.-led international coalition against IS, Iraqi and Syrian forces have captured most of the territory that IS once held under its so-called caliphate. They are now engaged in what they call the “clearing phase” against IS remnants.

The group continues to mount surprise hit-and-run attacks and plant explosive devices targeting security forces and civilians in both Iraq and Syria.

In areas disputed between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan region, such as Kirkuk, experts say the IS threat remains serious.

VOA Kurdish Service’s Dilshad Anwar contributed to this report from Kirkuk, Iraq.