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Commanders left Tikrit base before IS massacre, Iraqi parliament hears

Investigating disappearance of 1,700 soldiers from Tikrit air force base, Iraqi parliament hears that top commanders fled before attack
A still from an IS propaganda video purports to show a militant firing at withdrawing Iraqi forces in Tikrit on 8 June (AFP)

Iraq’s Parliament held an exceptional meeting on Wednesday to investigate the disappearance of 1,700 students at the Speicher air force training college in Tikrit in mid-June.

Iraqi police also arrested 23 people on Wednesday on suspicion of murdering a number of students at the air base, in an event the Iraqi press have dubbed the “Speicher Massacre.”

The students have not been seen since militants calling themselves the Islamic State (IS) took control of the army base on the outskirts of Tikrit in the Salah al-Din governorate.

After they took control of the base, IS claimed to have killed all 1,700 trainee soldiers on 12 June, publishing images purporting to show the execution of large numbers of people in civilian clothing.

Human Rights Watch issued a report on Tuesday revealing new execution sites and increasing the estimated death toll by 300 percent.

New information uncovered by the human rights monitor through examination of satellite images brought the total number of execution sites to five and the total death toll to “between 560 and 770 men, all or most of them apparently captured Iraqi army soldiers.”

A meeting held in the parliament building in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Wednesday heard from military commanders, as well as the families of some of the missing young men.

The session came a day after around 200 relatives of the young men burst into Baghdad’s parliament building demanding accountability for army commanders in charge at the time.

Nouri al-Maliki, who was Prime Minister and commander of the armed forces at the time of the attack, had been scheduled to attend the meeting – however, he was not seen at the session.

Qassem Ata, spokesperson for the armed forces, assured families of the missing soldiers that “all sections of the army are subject to legal proceedings.”

The commander of operations in Salah al-Din province, Ali al-Fariji, told the meeting that officers of a “very high rank left Speicher base and headed in an unknown direction as [Islamic State] entered Mosul.”

 He said, however, that no orders for withdrawal had been given to the soldiers guarding the camp.

After the meeting concluded, Iraqi news sites reported that Fariji was attacked by parliamentarians and some relatives of the missing, who accused him of “treachery.”

“Fariji then left the meeting hall and the parliament building,” a parliamentary source told Iraqi news site Mustakbal.

The next sitting will be held on Saturday 6 September.

Meanwhile on Wednesday a police chief in Babel, a town 280 kilometres south of Tikrit, said his forces had arrested 23 people on suspicion of murders at the air force base.

“Police employees were able to discover a cell composed of 23 terrorists, thanks to intelligence teams.

“They were involved in the killing of a number of those who died during the Speicher Massacre in Salah al-Din province.