Most of the dead men still had their hands bound behind their backs with white plastic zip cuffs. All of them had bullet holes in their heads.
As the victims of Iraq’s latest spasm of bloodletting were trucked into Baghdad’s largest morgue this week, medical staff ran out of space to store the dead.
Bloated, purple corpses lay heaped in the white tiled hallway alongside messy bundles of legs, arms and chunks of flesh wrapped in thick wool blankets.
Some of the bodies – of men executed and then dumped in a river – were so decayed that they barely looked human any more.
“We don’t have enough fridges so we have to rotate the bodies,” said a morgue worker as he picked his way among the corpses on the floor in a pair of white gumboots smeared with blood.
“We leave one group to thaw while the other group freezes and then we switch them around again.” Blood from head wounds seeped onto the white tiles as the corpses thawed in the sweltering heat.
Many of the bodies spilling out of the fridges in Baghdad’s largest morgue are the product of a vicious campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing carried out by Isis (also known as the Islamic State) – the barbaric Islamic group that recently captured large chunks of land in Iraq.
Many of those that have been singled out for execution belong to Iraq’s Shi’ite majority – a branch of Islam whose followers are considered apostates by Isis.
The sectarian killings have dragged Iraq once more to the brink of civil war as Shi’ite militias respond by targeting Sunnis with equal barbarity.
In June, in a clear message to the Shi’ite Iraqis who it considers heretics, Isis fighters attacked Camp Speicher, a large Iraqi air force base built on the scorched desert plains north of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
Arriving in pick-up trucks with light weapons, the militants quickly overran the former American military base. Soldiers who survived the attack claimed that their officers, terrified of Isis’s lightning advance, had ordered them to desert after swapping their military uniforms for civilian clothes.
But many must have wished they had stood their ground and fought. The soldiers had not gone far from the base when they were ambushed by well-armed Isis fighters. Wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles, the militants forced some of the soldiers and Shi’ite militiamen to lie down on their bellies in the dust before blindfolding and handcuffing them.
Others were marched off at gunpoint with their hands above their heads, loaded onto lorries and then driven to a makeshift courthouse. There, the militants used differences in the Muslim prayer rites to divide the soldiers into two groups – Shi’ite and Sunni.
The Shi’ite men were driven to different locations around Tikrit. What happened next was documented in videos that were later released by Isis on the internet.
In a barren patch of land close to one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces, masked Isis gunmen forced dozens of the Shi’ite soldiers to lie face down in two shallow scree trenches surrounded by tufts of grass.
Gunmen took it in turns to walk along the row of men, firing bullets into their bodies with assault rifles. In another trench, masked Isis gunmen lined up in a row before firing automatic weapons into the 20 prone bodies below them. More Shi’ite prisoners were then forced to lie down on top of their dead comrades before they too were executed.
Another group of prisoners were dragged to the banks of the River Tigris. Cuffed and blindfolded, an Isis executioner forced themto kneel on a small concrete plinth on the water’s edge. A man with a pistol stood behind them, shooting each man in the back of the head before kicking their corpses into the water.
“The filthy Shi’ites are killed in the hundreds,” stated a message on one Isis video.
Isis said that it executed 1,700 men that day. Iraq’s Ministry of Defence, perhaps trying to dampen fears of civil war, denied that the Speicher massacre had taken place. Other officials sought to downplay the killings, putting the number of dead far lower than the Isis tally.
Yet, in the weeks that followed the massacre, Iraqi soldiers and local tribesmen have fished out hundreds of bodies from the Tigris. More corpses have been discovered in shallow graves, according to a senior Iraqi military official who put the number of bodies recovered so far at about 1,000.
“It is one of the largest incidents of mass killings since 2003 – that’s including the chemical gas attack near Damascus last year,” said Peter Bouckeart, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, whose team have studied the Speicher massacre.
Last week, the Iraqi military transported 60 of the victims to Baghdad’s central morgue, adding to the 200 waiting to have their DNA collected before they are numbered and buried in the world’s largest cemetery in Najaf. Roughly 750 have been buried there so far.
When The Sunday Times visited the morgue the following day, many of the corpses were still heaped on the floor in the hallway outside the forensic laboratory.
Pale yellow flesh had begun to peel from some of the corpses.
The stench of rotting bodies was so strong that it clung to my clothes and body for the rest of the day. It took two showers to remove. Yet the morgue workers hardly seemed to notice the miasma around them.
“Some of them eat their lunch in there,” said one of the doctors. “They even chill their Coca Colas in the fridges next to the bodies.”
In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the story is the same. Doctors there say that 1,000 bodies have been brought into the morgue since June, when Isis militants captured the city. About 300 are still in the city’s fridges; 400 have been buried and the rest have been collected by relatives.
There are so many bodies that morgue officials have applied for a special permit that allows them to bury the dead 48 hours after they arrive instead of holding the bodies until relatives collect their dead.
“There’s not enough space to keep them,” said Amir Jameel Hamoud, the head of the morgue’s forensic department. “The military need many fridges because of what is happening in the country. Even here we are burying them in a matter of days.”
Hamoud said that even if the bodies from the Speicher massacre were discounted, the number of corpses brought into the morgue every day had tripled in the last six months, when Isis first swept into Iraq from their stronghold in northern Syria.
“The number of unidentified bodies coming to us are a good indication of how bad things are in the country,” said Hamoud. “And we are preparing for worse.”
Shi’ite death squads have already begun to retaliate, opening fire on Sunni worshipers in mosques, attacking Sunnis with car bombs and assassinating Sunni families they accuse of supporting Isis fighters along the front lines around Baghdad.
“If both sides continue like this then there will be civil war,” said Abu Hussein, a commander in one of the most feared Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq. “But we have the men and the weapons to defeat Isis. We are ready for the war.”