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Mass Graves Discovered in Former ISIS Territory

Over 200 mass graves left by the Islamic State (ISIS) have been discovered in Iraq, according to a joint report released Tuesday by the United Nations and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It is estimated that 6,000-12,000 victims are buried at the sites, including women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly, foreign workers, and members of the Iraqi security forces.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Market,  BBC , Nov 6, 2018.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Market, BBC, Nov 6, 2018.

This discovery comes less than a year after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared an end to the war with ISIS in December 2017. The graves were discovered in the north and western regions of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, and Anbar — all territories controlled by ISIS for nearly three years. In its self-proclaimed caliphate, ISIS carried out gruesome executions and punishments such as "shooting, beheading, bulldozing, burning alive and throwing persons off the top of buildings,” as cited by NPR in an article on the UN Report. It is anticipated that more graves will be discovered in upcoming months.

These discoveries provide vital evidence for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide. Suki Nagra, director of human rights at the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said that "For us, the biggest issue is that the truth comes out of what actually happened -- for the victims -- and that the evidence from the results of the exhumations from these mass graves is actually used for criminal prosecutions.”

However, the forensic evidence needed for the investigations is proving to be a logistical challenge for the Iraqi government. The manpower and technical resources needed to uncover the graves is immense; only 28 of the estimated 202 have been exhumed. Moreover, there are several areas where ISIS is still active, thus requiring additional security to make long term investigations possible. So far, the remains of only 1,258 people have been exhumed. According to Dhia Kareem, head of the Mass Graves Directorate in Iraq, “the number of the victims of the mass graves is much bigger than the numbers in the report.”

Source: Ari Jalal, Reuters, November 6, 2018.

Source: Ari Jalal, Reuters, November 6, 2018.

The daunting task of exhuming and investigating the mass graves may lead to potential requests for help from the international community. The logistical shortcomings are evident, especially since there are still mass graves being discovered from the rule of Saddam Hussein as this current investigation unfolds. In order to obtain the necessary evidence to conduct criminal investigations and prosecutions, it is clear Iraqi authorities will need more resources. Given that accusations may include crimes against humanity and even genocide, an international response may be necessary in order to assure justice for the victims and their families.