Sunni militants in Iraq posted graphic photos online over the weekend that show gunmen slaughtering dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers.
The pictures, according to The Associated Press, were posted on a militant website linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and they depict masked gunmen forcing the men into flatbed trucks. Other images in the series show the same gunmen forcing the men to lie down in a shallow ditch, and the final pictures show the bodies of the same men, soaked in blood after being shot.
A chief military spokesman for Iraq confirmed the authenticity of the photos. Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi told reporters that examination of the pictures showed that about 170 Iraqi soldiers were killed. Captions on the photos claimed "hundreds have been liquidated.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the number of dead could not be confirmed but that the pictures are a “horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that those terrorists represent.”
ISIL militants captured the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tikrit last week and have promised to continue their offensive and march on Baghdad, according to separate story from the AP carried by ABC.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to retake all of the territory captured by ISIL.
It is believed the men killed in the photos were wearing civilian clothes because many Iraqi soldiers had shed their uniforms and gone into hiding, rather than be caught supporting the Maliki government, following the ISIL victories last week.
One Iraqi villager told Euronews that militants had directly threatened anyone who opposed them.
“They said from the start that anyone who resists them will be killed and that anyone who surrenders his weapons can go,” the unnamed man said.
The fighting is viewed by many as the worst violence the country has seen since U.S. forces left in 2011.
The U.S. State Department has strengthened security at the embassy in Baghdad and issued a travel warning cautioning U.S. citizens to avoid "all but essential travel to Iraq.”
President Barack Obama is said to be weighing possible military options to support the Maliki government. The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush arrived in the Persian Gulf over the weekend.