Human rights advocates try to uncover a possible massacre in Iraq

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and you're tuned to The World. After a weekend of difficult news out of Iraq, we start today with Iraq to try to get to the bottom of what it all means. Things are not looking good for the Iraqi government. Recall that this is a government that we Americans helped set up through many years of occupation. It's under attack from the ruthless Islamist militant group, ISIS. We want to try to answer the kinds of questions on your minds about what's happening in Iraq that will help us with our coverage this week. Drop us a note at Here are some of the questions we are already delving into: What do Sunnis think about this so-called Sunni insurgency and how does Iran fit into this? First though, we want to know more about the horrible images the militants have posted online. According to ISIS, these pictures show the lead-up to a massacre of Iraqi army soldiers by the group's fighters. But as is often the case, it's hard to confirm if the pictures are real. Peter Bouckaert has been examining them with his team at Humans Rights Watch in New York. Peter Bouckaert: What we have been able to establish is that these images do come from the city of Tecrete. They show a sequence of people being detained and then taken to a site nearby where they appear to be executed. We have been able to locate both the place where the pictures of the detainees were taken and then the execution site itself in Tecrete using satellite imagery and matching features in the area. We obtained a satellite image from Tecrete this morning and we will now try to locate the actual trenches where these executions took place. Werman: You've gotten that far, what else do you need to know to come up with 100% verification of these pictures? Bouckaert: We should try to make sure that these pictures were not staged. We have no indication at the moment that they are. This certainly is consistent with the modus operandi of ISIS, killing large numbers of mostly Shiite detainees. It does appear that ISIS is trying to provoke an even bloodier sectarian conflict in Iraq by carrying out these very provocative mass executions, if they will be verified. We do have reports from Tecrete that many soldiers who fled the ISIS offensive are still in hiding. Local families are helping them hide in their homes and ISIS forces are going house to house looking for them and forcing men to join ISIS or face execution themselves. Werman: Ultimately, don't investigators need to go on the ground and talk with people? Bouckaert: Absolutely. That's what we're in the process of trying to do to try to find eyewitnesses to these incidents. But I investigated similar mass executions conducted by Saddam Hussein following the first Gulf War and the failed uprising of the Shiite then. It is interesting to see that the techniques shown in these videos are very similar to the 1991 mass executions and different from what ISIS has been doing in Syria. The fact that these people are trucked out to these execution sites and that there are prepared trenches dug by bulldozers, then they're lined up an executed; it's almost identical to what the Iraqi security forces did in 1991 and not the kind of executions that we've been seeing in Syria from ISIS. There are certainly strong indications that these are authentic. They certainly were taken in Tecrete itself. These are not images that were taken from previous incidents of sectarian violence and re-circulating on the internet. These are recent images and they did come from Tecrete. Werman: Part of your job is to look at horrible images like these. How does that affect you and others at Human Rights Watch? Bouckaert: These certainly are extremely graphic and horrible images. We've been working in Iraq for decades and I think the most difficult part is to see the country slide again into this sectarian bloodshed. We have many friends and colleagues who live in Iraq with their families and I think a deep sense of fear sets in when these kinds of killings start. Everybody I talk to is concerned for their relatives who are still in Iraq as this bloodshed spreads. It will be very, very difficult to step back from the precipice as both sides get mobilized for further bloodshed. Werman: That's Peter Bouckaert for Human Rights Watch in New York.