Heavy rain uncovered a mass grave in Iraq's Salaheddine province earlier this month, exposing the remains of civilians who reportedly disappeared five years ago during the battles to expel the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
Local residents and dignitaries accuse Iran-backed militias that were battling ISIS as part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) at the time, of detaining these civilians and executing them at the site.
They said they believe there are many other grave sites waiting to be discovered that contain the remains of civilians killed by armed paramilitary groups.
The grave was found on January 13 near the town of al-Ishaqi, in a rural area known as Jali.
Salaheddine tribal council secretary-general Sheikh Thaer al-Bayati said the grave was discovered by chance when villagers found human bones protruding above the ground after heavy rains.
"An initial examination of the grave revealed the victims were civilians who were killed by gunfire at close range after they were handcuffed and blindfolded," he said, with the bodies "buried at the same site where the execution took place".
The method of execution is similar to that used by ISIS, al-Bayati said.
But in this case, he said, the culprits are the pro-Iran or "loyalist" militias, who owe their allegiance to Iran and its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei (al-Wali al-Faqih).
"Some of the first people to get to the grave identified the victims by their official IDs that were buried with them, confirming they were kidnapped by the militias who settled in the area after its liberation from ISIS," al-Bayati said.
These militias include Iran-aligned Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hizbullah, Saraya al-Khorasani and the Badr Organisation, he said.
Killed in cold blood
Al-Bayati said after the grave was discovered, militiamen "cordoned off the area and prevented people from getting to it for fear of being exposed".
The grave may contain the remains of hundreds of victims, he said.
Among them are at least two children, aged 10 and 12, and elderly men who were kidnapped from their homes or seized in the street by heavily armed militiamen, and have not been heard from since.
Thousands of people disappeared at the hands of Iran-linked militias during the war on ISIS, according to their relatives, who claim this was done under the pretext or suspicion they had been collaborating with ISIS.
The discovery of the gravesite brings this issue to the fore.
The number of forcibly disappeared residents of five provinces liberated from ISIS (Salaheddine, Anbar, Ninawa, Kirkuk, Diyala), and the area encircling Baghdad, known as the Baghdad belt, is estimated at 25,000, al-Bayati said.
People believe there are many other yet-to-be-discovered gravesites that contain the remains of disappeared persons killed in cold blood by militiamen, he said.
He pointed to reports and information indicating Iran-backed militias had kidnapped and killed residents of agricultural towns in Salaheddine, including Amerli, Tuz Khurmatu, Sayed Gharib, Balad, Yathrib, Mukayshifa and al-Sharqat.
There have been similar reports from other provinces, he said.
Families of disappeared seek answers
"In the post-liberation period, the militias kidnapped a large number of residents of this province and led them away to unknown locations under the pretext of their association with ISIS," said Salaheddine resident Ali al-Jubouri.
"The arrests were indiscriminate and were carried out without arrest warrants from the judiciary," he said.
Al-Jubouri said one of his cousins was stopped with others at a militia checkpoint on the Tikrit-Baghdad road in 2015, and his fate remains unknown.
"The families of the disappeared are suffering greatly" as they search for those who have gone missing and try to find out what happened to them, he said.
"If they are alive, why is the location of their detention not revealed, and why are they not given a lawful and fair trial, in which the guilty is handed his punishment and the innocent set free?" he asked.
Former Iraqi MP Shaalan al-Karim, who represented Salaheddine in parliament, said the families' demands have been submitted to the government, humanitarian agencies and authorities for investigation.
"We continue to appeal to the authorities and stress the need for quick and earnest action to uncover the fate of these disappeared persons," he said, noting that around 3,500 people remain unaccounted for in Salaheddine alone.
Investigations are under way to ascertain the facts regarding the victims found in the recently discovered grave in al-Ishaqi, he said, and to determine their identities via forensic examinations.
"The results of the investigations will finally prove to us whether the victims died at the hands of armed groups, as their families claim, or at the hands of ISIS elements," al-Karim said.
The latter cannot be ruled out as the killers yet, he said, "as they have previously committed similar crimes".