Baghdad, Iraq – Shaker Thieban did not expect to live to tell the story.
“We were running back to the [military] base. The fighters were running behind us and shooting in all directions. The bullets were like rain and bodies were falling one by one,” the 24-year-old Iraqi soldier told Al Jazeera by phone from his hometown of Nassiriya.
“There was no other option but to keep jogging, as the tomato farms which we entered had no trees or buildings to be used as shelter.”
Thieban escaped a massacre at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) group in June in Tikrit, the capital of the Iraqi province of Salahadin about 170km north of Baghdad. Between 560 and 770 mainly Iraqi soldiers were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. HRW found evidence of three mass execution sites in the city.
The fighters were running behind us and shooting in all directions. The bullets were like rain and bodies were falling one by one.
Iraqi security officials told Al Jazeera that they estimated at least 2,400 Iraqi soldiers were killed or kidnapped by IS fighters in Tikrit, while the group itself claimed that it killed as many as 1,700 soldiers. The Islamic State group released photos showing men in civilian clothes lying face down and with their hands bound in a ditch surrounded by yellow fields, as a row of masked fighters fired at them.
A few days before the killings, on June 10, Islamic State fighters seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as Iraqi troops in the city abandoned their weapons and posts. This takeover prompted IS to continue its advance into Salahadin province, and the Tikrit area.
Many of the soldiers killed in Tikrit had abandoned their weapons, uniforms and positions at the Speicher military base, an airbase on the outskirts of the city that previously served as a US military facility.
The Speicher base was besieged by IS fighters for almost 10 weeks, while about 440 Iraqi soldiers remained inside, Lt. Gen Ali al-Fraiji, the commander of the Salahadin security operation centre, told Iraqi lawmakers.
On August 22, Iraqi forces, backed by Shia Muslim fighters and volunteers, regained control of the northern parts of Tikrit and opened a route between the base and troops stationed just outside the city, who sent in food and reinforcements to break the IS siege.
Thieban was one of 1,500 new army recruits that were sent to Tikrit to form a new unit after receiving a two-week basic training course. On June 11, his unit was moved to Speicher base, where 200 policemen and special forces troops, in addition to hundreds of soldiers who fled their units in Mosul, which had fallen to IS earlier that month, were sheltering.
The Speicher base, known as al-Sahra airfield during Saddam Hussein’s rule, was used by the United States army as a contingency operating base after its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The base was considered well fortified and consists of a number of aircraft hangers.
On June 12, a colonel in the Iraqi army called the troops at the base together at 8am and told them to abandon their weapons and military uniforms and go home, according to at least three survivors of the subsequent killings, who testified before Iraqi lawmakers in a televised session on September 3.
“The colonel asked us to gather in a circle and asked us to hand over our weapons and equipment, change our uniform and take two weeks leave,” Thaier Abdulkareem, an Iraqi soldier who survived the killings, told the MPs. “He [the colonel] said the roads were secured, and [we would] find buses to transfer [us] to Baghdad, but we were captured by [IS fighters] near the university [a few kilometres from the base].”
For his part, Thieban said that after leaving the base, he and 12 other soldiers – all from Iraq’s southern Shia-majority provinces – were taken by IS fighters, and put onto the back of a pick-up truck. As another group of soldiers argued with the fighters, Thieban and his colleagues had a chance to escape, he said.
“[The Islamic State fighters] were deeply involved in the preparation to execute those soldiers, and we were left alone so we decided to jump from the truck and take our chances,” Thieban said. “We ran and ran, and ran.”
After five hours, the men were exhausted, thirsty and desperate when they found a dry stream at the edge of a farm. They decided to lie down to catch their breath and wait for sunset to continue their escape. “I was so tired and could not run any more. I asked my friends to leave me there and keep moving. At that time, it was no longer important to me. I was dying of thirst,” Thieban said.
That’s when a poor Sunni villager on the outskirts of Tikrit came upon the group, and agreed to hide them in his attic, at great personal risk, Thieban said. The villager harboured the men for 10 days, before helping them move to a nearby town that was still under the control of Iraqi troops.
More than 11,000 Iraqi troops have been registered as missing since June 10, according to the spokesperson of the General Command of the Armed Forces, Gen. Qassim Atta. Several thousand were either killed or kidnapped, but the majority have deserted their posts, security officials told Al Jazeera.
“We had three divisions in Salahadin, including the troops who abandoned their positions in Mosul. Most soldiers of these troops were either Kurds or Sunnis from the nearby areas and they went back to their homes without being registered as deserters,” said a senior Iraqi security official who declined to be named.
On September 2, more than 1,000 family members of missing soldiers believed to be abducted by IS fighters broke into the Iraqi parliament after protesting outside the building. They were demanding answers from the government as to the whereabouts of their loved ones.
The United Nations also called on Iraq to investigate the killings at the Speicher military base. The Iraqi authorities must endeavour “to locate and identify the remains of any who may have been killed, and to undertake all efforts to secure the release of any who may remain in captivity”, the UN representative in Iraq, Nikolai Mladenov, said in a statement.
The interruption of communications and the lack of experience, professionalism and coordination between the commands resulted in what happened to the soldiers.
Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, the Office of the General Command of the Armed Forces, the Iraqi National Intelligence Service and the Iraqi parliament have formed several investigation committees, including some joint probes, to investigate what happened at the Speicher base.
Four senior military officers who spoke to Al Jazeera blamed corruption, chaos and poor choices in the security commands for the deaths of Iraqi soldiers across the country.
“There was no complicity or betrayal, but the interruption of communications and the lack of experience, professionalism and coordination between the commands resulted in what happened to the soldiers at Speicher,” said a senior Iraqi security official who is linked to the armed forces and is involved in the investigations.
“The most frustrating thing that all the investigation committees have faced is the lack of the accurate numbers of the real missing people from Speicher base over three days, starting from June 11,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
Ahmed Ghareeb, an independent Iraqi political analyst, told Al Jazeera that while the killing of the Iraqi soldiers would not lead to further sectarian violence or retribution, the Speicher base incident may “be a [political] card in the hands of Shia parties” that may use the episode “as a pretext to mobilise Sunnis against their politicians”.
Meanwhile, he said, “[the] Iraqi parliament’s intervention in this case has absorbed the anger of the victims’ families, and redirects it to the security institutions which… have failed to provide convincing answers for Iraqis on why this happened”.