Months After Atrocities In Tikrit, Iraqi Parents Demand Answers

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Iraq's parliament was overrun Wednesday by men whose sons disappeared and were likely killed when the Islamic State captured Tikrit in June. They brandished sticks as they burst through security, assaulted people and staged a sit-in at the meeting hall. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch is saying that nearly 800 men were killed in the attack on Tikrit.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The beheadings of two U.S. journalists in Syria by the extremists calling themselves the Islamic State have galvanized world attention. We're also learning more about mass atrocities committed earlier this summer by the extremists in Iraq. They claimed to have executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in June - soldiers who were posted at a military base north of Baghdad. Now, Human Rights Watch reports it has documented the deaths of hundreds - up to 770 men in that massacre. And the parents of those missing and presumed dead are demanding answers from the government. They even stormed Parliament.

NPR's Alice Fordham has been following the developments. She joins us now from Baghdad. And Alice, first tell us more about this report by Human Rights Watch and what it revealed about this mass killing.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: All right. Well, this happened as the Islamic State swept through large parts of the country three months ago. They took the city of Tikrit; they took the areas around it. And Human Rights Watch have analyzed video footage put out by the Islamic State of killings that happened in this area and they say now that they believe that, as you say, up to 770 men, very likely to have been members of the armed forces from the Speicher military base appear to have been killed at five different sites close to Tikrit. This would be one of the worst mass killings by the group, even as things stand. And Human Rights Watch's analysts think the number is actually likely to climb.

There were very few survivors known about, which does, I think make it hard to establish facts. But Human Rights Watch had spoken to one and he said that senior officers had told the men to withdraw and to put on civilian clothes and run away, essentially. And the families blame those senior officers and also local tribal leaders, who they believe were colluding with the Islamic State, for what happened to their sons.

BLOCK: And Alice, as we mentioned, the families of these missing soldiers attacked Parliament yesterday. What can you tell us about that?

FORDHAM: Well, there were well over a hundred of the men, according to people who were there. The plan had been that they would address Parliament about their issues, but once they were there they began a violent protest. They smashed up parts of the building, assaulted the staff, all the politicians were hiding in their offices. And they then staged a sit-in in the meeting room where the Parliament usually gathers and they refused to leave until the speaker of Parliament negotiated with them, agreed to host them at a hotel nearby and hold a special session of Parliament just for them, today.

BLOCK: OK so that was today. And what happened in that special session?

FORDHAM: A statement on behalf of the families was read out. As I say, they condemned the fact that the government hasn't given an explanation for what happened at the airbase, saying that they blamed both the senior officers and the local tribes.

And at the hearing, the out-going prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, wasn't there, which some people were really upset about. But the defense minister and some senior generals were and they denied the charge of orders to withdraw and they promised to start an investigation. So there has been dissatisfaction at the results of this by some of the members of Parliament, who I think were very sympathetic with the parents. But a process of investigation has started.

BLOCK: Well, as we learn more about this massacre of these Iraqi soldiers by Islamic State extremists, does it tell us more about how that group is functioning and how they've been able to take over so much of Iraq so quickly?

FORDHAM: Right. I think it shows us that the takeover happened not just because the Islamic State was stronger, but because the Iraqi military was so weak and because of divides between the military and the civilian population. Most of these cadets were Shiites from the south and the tribal leaders that the families accuse of colluding with the Islamic State are Sunnis.

So although these allegations are unproved, it gives you some sense of both how much people failed to trust their senior military officers, and of the deep sectarian mistrust between the military and between the civilians in Sunni parts of the country.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Middle East correspondent, Alice Fordham. She is in Baghdad. Alice, thanks very much.

FORDHAM: You're welcome.

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