An al-Qaeda-affiliated group said it killed 1,700 Iraqis, setting social media and jihadist forums ablaze with claims that could further fuel the country's sectarian tensions and propel it closer to civil war.
The claims by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted on jihadist forums and on Twitter, couldn't be independently verified. They were accompanied by photos of the purported mass shootings, images that recalled some of the footage from the civil war in Syria, where about 160,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians.
If verified, the massacres would be among the worst atrocities in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian battles between the Shiite Muslim majority and the Sunni minority that had held power for decades.
Iraq's government is seeking to regain territory held by the Sunni militant group. Its advance after capturing the city of Mosul last week put in doubt Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's rule over a unified Iraq, OPEC's second-largest oil producer.
The images showed scores of young Iraqi soldiers, either piled into trucks after their purported capture, or lying down at the mouth of long ditches that were to serve as mass graves. Some pictures showed militants, clad in black or in civilian clothing, firing into groups of 30 to 60 men. The captions mocked the victims, with one saying: "A lion against the weak and in war, an ostrich." It described the men as apostates.
All out war
The massacre, if proven true, would represent the latest atrocity by ISIL, a group that began as al-Qaeda in Iraq at the start of the US-led invasion and has since morphed into a battle-hardened body seemingly intent on plunging Iraq into all- out civil war pitting Shiites against Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's government has struggled to counter ISIL and avert sending the embattled OPEC member deeper into chaos. The fighting has left some elements of the US-trained army in disarray, with defections reported in the face of militants who have honed their skills on the battlefields in neighbouring Syria.
The army killed more than 279 'terrorists' with the group within the past 24 hours, army spokesman Qassim Ata said in a televised news conference on Sunday.
While the US has warships positioned in the area in case they are needed to defend American interests in the country, President Barack Obama remains reluctant to order the use of force in the nation after ending US troop involvement there in 2011.
The posting of the images recalled images of the campaign of suicide bombings and decapitations carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq – a campaign designed to boost its following as much as it was aimed at terrorising Shiites and others who the militants saw as working to marginalise the Sunni population.
The Sunni Muslims are a majority in the Anbar Province to the east and in areas to the north of Baghdad, mostly areas that lack the oil wealth concentrated in the Shiite-dominated south and the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions in the north.
The US invasion of Iraq changed the decades-long power balance in Iraq, leaving Sunnis feeling marginalised and victimised by Shiites. Militias on both sides waged a bloody campaign between 2005 and 2007, in battles that polarised the nation and thwarted hopes of stability.
To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew J. Barden in Dubai at firstname.lastname@example.org; Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at email@example.com To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at firstname.lastname@example.org Amy Teibel, Rob Verdonck