Mass graves discovered in former ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq could contain 400 bodies

Mass graves discovered at an Iraqi airbase that was previously under the Islamic State group’s control could contain up to 400 bodies, an Iraqi official said Sunday after local residents described the atrocities the terror group carried out.  

The bodies were found in an abandoned base near Hawija, a northern town retaken in early October, Kirkuk governor Rakan Saed said, adding that the place was “turned into an execution ground.” Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, was under ISIS control since 2013 until last month.

Officials discovered torn clothing and possible human bones and skulls in the area. It’s unclear when the bodies, which include civilians and security forces, will be exhumed.

Khalaf Luhaibi, a local shepherd, led troops to the mass graves and said ISIS brought captives to the area, shot and killed them or poured oil over them and lit them on fire. Other residents also gave “witness accounts” of the atrocities ISIS carried out when it held control of the area, the BBC reported.

In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 frame grab from video, a civil defense officer inspects blood-stained clothing and picks up what appears to be a bone in an area recently retaken from the Islamic State group, at an abandoned base near the northern town of Hawija, Iraq. Kirkuk governor Rakan Saed said Sunday that the bodies of civilians and security forces have been found at the mass grave that could contain up to 400 bodies. (Kirkuk Governor's Office via AP)

a civil defense officer inspects blood-stained clothing and picks up what appears to be a bone in an area recently retaken from the Islamic State group, at an abandoned base near the northern town of Hawija, Iraq.  (AP)

ISIS’ territory in Iraq has diminished significantly after Iraqi forces drove its fighters out of two key cities — Mosul and Raqqa — earlier this year. Iraqi forces have driven ISIS from nearly all of its territory, uncovering several mass graves in other newly liberated areas.

On Saturday, Iraq's Prime Minister announced an operation to capture a patch of territory on the western edge of the country near the border with Syria. Hours later, Iraqi Defense Ministry announced capturing Romana area, saying the troops will head to nearby town of Rawa.

According to Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the Shiite-majority paramilitary forces, Rawa is the last Iraqi town held by ISIS, which still controls some scattered small villages in mainly desert areas.   

In this Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017 frame grab from video, Iraqi security forces speak to shepherd Khalaf Luhaibi next to bones on the ground, in an area recently retaken from the Islamic State group, at an abandoned base near the northern town of Hawija, Iraq. Kirkuk governor Rakan Saed said Sunday that the bodies of civilians and security forces have been found at the mass grave that could contain up to 400 bodies. (Kirkuk Governor's Office via AP)

Iraqi security forces speak to shepherd Khalaf Luhaibi next to bones on the ground, in an area recently retaken from the Islamic State group, at an abandoned base near the northern town of Hawija, Iraq.  (AP)

The Associated Press contributed to this report.