A mass grave believed to hold the bodies of dozens of women executed by the Islamic State group was found Saturday in Iraq’s Sinjar, where Kurdish forces are clearing bombs the jihadists left.
Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani announced the “liberation of Sinjar” Friday, a day after the launch of a major ground operation to drive out IS that ended in not only a military victory for him, but a political one as well.
The bombs must be removed before the northern town’s mainly Yazidi residents, from a minority group who were targeted in a brutal Islamic State campaign of massacres, enslavement and rape, can return to begin rebuilding their lives.
And with the town retaken, new evidence of the jihadists’ horrific abuses against Yazidis is beginning to emerge.
Officials found the site of the mass grave based on information from young women enslaved by IS who claimed to have witnessed the execution of dozens of Yazidi women before later escaping.
Miyasir Hajji, a local council member, told AFP the grave on the edge of the town, which has not yet been excavated, is thought to contain the bodies of 78 women aged from 40 to around 80.
“It seems that the (IS) terrorist members only wanted young girls to enslave,” Hajji said, referring to the jihadists using women as sex slaves who can be bought and sold.
Mahma Khalil, the local official responsible for the Sinjar area, confirmed that the mass grave had been found, and estimated it held some 80 victims.
Meanwhile, Kurdish peshmerga forces are working to clear the many bombs left by IS.
“Until now, we defused 45 bombs and a car bomb,” said Sulaiman Saeed, who works in explosives disposal.
“Bombs are widespread in houses,” Saeed said, adding that some 20 tonnes of explosives were found in a bomb-making factory, while they also discovered 20 barrels of explosives.
Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the international operation against IS, told a news conference Friday: “Now that they’ve seized Sinjar, or freed Sinjar, the next phase is to go back and clear it.
“That will take a while... depending on the complexity of the minefields and obstacles that (IS) left behind,” Warren said.
But bombs are not the only obstacles to a return by residents, as many houses and shops were smashed during the fighting.
The ground operation, which began Thursday morning, was led by peshmerga forces and also involved Yazidi fighters, with support from US-led air strikes.
That day, they cut Highway 47, one of IS’s main supply routes linking territory it holds in Iraq and Syria, then moved into the town Friday.
Victory for Barzani
IS overran Sinjar in August last year, forcing thousands of Yazidis to flee to a mountain overlooking the town, where they were trapped by the jihadists.
The United Nations has described the attack on the Yazidis as a possible genocide.
Aiding the Yazidis, whose faith IS considers heretical, was one of Washington’s main justifications for starting its air campaign against the jihadists last year.
Recapturing Sinjar gives a political boost to Barzani, who remains in power even though his mandate expired in August.
In his bid to stay in office despite opposition from other parties, Barzani has argued that his leadership is required to steer the region as its peshmerga forces play a significant role in battling IS.
Patrick Martin, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said: “The Sinjar operation strengthens Barzani vis-a-vis his political opponents. He can take credit for launching the operation.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: “The Barzani leadership of the (Kurdistan region) can show progress... at a time when they are under mounting domestic criticism from other coalition partners in the government.”
But in establishing control over the Sinjar area, Barzani may also set the stage for conflict with other Kurdish groups in the area, and Yazidis who resent the peshmerga’s failure to protect them last year, analysts say.