Iraqi forensic teams have begun excavating 12 suspected mass grave sites thought to hold the corpses of as many as 1,700 soldiers massacred last year by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters as they swept across northern Iraq.

The mass killings last June of Shia soldiers from Camp Speicher, a former US base outside the Sunni city of Tikrit, has become a symbol of the brutality of ISIL's fighters. The images of Shia soldiers being massacred, posted online by the jihadists, could rank as the deadliest single act of bloodshed during a decade of periodic sectarian war in Iraq.

The exhumation of burial sites on Monday came days after ISIL fighters were driven from the city by Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitaries.

"We dug up the first mass grave site today. Until now we found at least 20 bodies. Initial indications show indisputably that they were from the Speicher victims," Khalid al-Atbi, an Iraqi health official working with the forensic team sent to Tikrit, told the Reuters news agency.

Inside Story: The lessons of Tikrit

"It was a heartbreaking scene. We couldn't prevent ourselves from breaking down in tears. What savage barbarian could kill 1,700 persons in cold blood?" he asked.

UN findings

The UN said in a report released last month that about "1,500 to 1,700 members of the Iraqi armed forces from Camp Speicher ... were summarily executed on 12 June by ISIL, allegedly after being captured or having surrendered".

The report noted that the results of a government investigation into the incident have not yet been made public.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi announced on March 30 that Iraqi security forces, backed by small militia groups, had gained control of Tikrit and driven away ISIL fighters.

The Iraqi Federal Police and special forces, an elite force of the Iraqi army, called the Golden Division, were the main combatants against ISIL in the battle of Tikrit, according to senior federal police and interior ministry officials.

Political analysts and observers said that Iraqi security forces belied expectations that they would be unable to defeat ISIL without the support of the popular mobilisation forces and their sophisticated weapons.

Source: Al Jazeera And Reuters