Militants claim mass execution in Iraq

BAGHDAD — Wielding the threat of sectarian slaughter, Sunni Islamist militants on Sunday claimed that they had massacred hundreds of captive Shiite members of Iraq’s security forces, posting grisly pictures of a mass execution in Tikrit as evidence and warning of more killing to come.

Even as anecdotal reports of extrajudicial killings around the country seemed to bear out the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s intent to kill Shiites wherever it could, Iraqi officials and some human rights groups cautioned that the militants’ claim to have killed 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit could not be immediately verified.

But with their claim, the Sunni militants were reveling in an atrocity that if confirmed would be the worst yet in the conflicts that roil the region, outstripping even the poison gas attack near Damascus, Syria, last year.

In an atmosphere where there were already fears that the militants’ sudden advance near the capital would prompt Shiite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arab civilians, the claims by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant were potentially explosive. And that is exactly the group’s stated intent: to stoke a return to all-out sectarian warfare that would bolster its attempts to carve out a Sunni Islamist caliphate that crosses borders through the region.

The sectarian element of the killings, and reports late Sunday that the city of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, had also fallen, may put more pressure on the Obama administration to aid Iraq militarily. In fact, the militants seemed to be counting on it. A pronouncement on Sunday by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had a clear message for the United States: “Soon we will face you, and we are waiting for this day.”

The group’s announcement was made in a series of gruesome photographs uploaded to an the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Twitter feed and on websites late Saturday night. Some showed insurgents, many wearing black masks, lining up at the edges of what looked like shallow mass graves and apparently firing their weapons into young men who had their hands bound behind their backs and were packed closely together in large groups.

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. The numbers of victims who could be seen in any one of the pictures numbered no more than about 60 and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves.

The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to stoke anger and fear among Shiites. “The filthy Shiites are killed in the hundreds,” one read. “The liquidation of the Shiites who ran away from their military bases,” read another, and, “This is the destiny of Maliki’s Shiites,” referring to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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