SOUTH OF MOSUL (Reuters) - The killers made no attempt to hide the bodies of the 15 men they shot dead by the side of a road cutting across wheat fields in northern Iraq.
Blindfolded and bound, the victims lay decomposing in plain sight of the occasional car that drives along this route scattered with spent bullet casings. Two of the men had been marched a short way into the field, where one was apparently forced to kneel before being shot from behind.
Prostrated beside him, the other man wore faded jeans. In his back pocket was an ID card: Qusay Mohammad, age 31.
The place they were found is in territory held by government forces around 20 km from the front line in Mosul, where Iraqi troops are fighting to dislodge Islamic State militants from the last pocket of territory they control.
According to Human Rights Watch, which examined Reuters photographs from the scene, the evidence strongly suggests that the men were killed by forces affiliated with the Iraqi state, who are rounding up thousands of suspects as they capture territory from Islamic State fighters.
“It is hard to come to any conclusion other than that they were in the custody of government forces when executed,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, judging by where the bodies were found and the fact they were blindfolded and bound.
With the information on the ID in Qusay’s pocket, Reuters was able to determine that he is on a government database of 90,000 men wanted across Iraq, including suspected Islamic State members. A senior officer in the National Security Service checked the list at Reuters request and found his name.
All adult men emerging from territory held by the militants are screened against the database, and anyone on it is liable to be arrested.
The ID also led Reuters to the village where Qusay spent most of his life, in the Shirqat district, around 50 kilometers south of the place he would die.
The youngest of five brothers, Qusay dropped out of school and married his cousin Beida sometime after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the village became notorious as a stronghold for insurgents.
Qusay stayed out of trouble, earning a living as a plasterer until Islamic State overran the area three years ago, according to his wife and eldest brother, Khalid.
The fighters were welcomed by many in the village, including Qusay’s uncles and cousins, who helped them impose their uncompromising rule.
Qusay did not initially join the militants. But around four months after they took over Khalid heard his brother had enrolled in an Islamic State training course to earn money as a member of the group. He quit before completing it.
“It was material need (that drove him), not revenge or religion,” Khalid told Reuters, adding that the other three brothers also fell in with the militants at some point but he himself had kept away.
Qusay’s wife, now 26 years old, denies he had any link with Islamic State. She says Qusay did his best to provide for their five young children by selling ice or fuel which he bought from filling stations and re-sold for a small margin.
Two of her own brothers were killed by the militants, she said. So how could her husband have joined them?
As Iraqi forces began closing in on the village last summer, Qusay and three of his brothers joined hundreds of Islamic State members and their families retreating north towards Mosul, the biggest city in Islamic State’s hands.
Khalid, the only brother who stayed behind, said the others had left fearing Iraqi forces and government-backed militia would kill them because of their links to the militants, whether or not they actually supported the fighters.
Beida remained in the village with the children. Her husband told her “‘Stay here and I will come back to you. I don’t want you and the children to suffer with me,’” she recalled.
“We all cried but he had to go.”
He returned once in September to visit them during Eid al-Adha, the biggest holiday in the Muslim calendar.
“We ate together and enjoyed ourselves... but he left the same day and we were sad again,” Beida said. They never saw him again.
Soon after, Iraqi forces recaptured their village, which meant a frontline now separated Qusay from his family. In October, government troops launched their assault on Mosul, a fierce urban battle which has continued ever since.
Beida kept in touch with Qusay by phone until a local Sunni militia banished her and the children to a camp for relatives of Islamic State militants, which Human Rights Watch has described as an “open-air prison”.
Mobile phones are banned there for security reasons, so she lost contact with Qusay. But she heard that he and his three brothers tried to escape Mosul last month among thousands of civilians fleeing the government advance on Islamic State.
Who captured him is difficult to verify. A range of different forces — from official police and military units to dozens of government-backed militias — are involved in the war against Islamic State in Iraq. Any of them could have caught Qusay, or passed him on to others.
A member of a local government-backed militia at a checkpoint along the road where the bodies were found said the men had been brought by “security forces” around three days earlier, but did not identify which.
At some point, whoever was holding Qusay brought him and the others to where they were shot. A strip of cloth had been tied over his eyes. His hands were knotted behind his back with string.
When Reuters reached the scene, maggots and wild dogs were feasting on the 15 bodies and the 40 degree heat had accelerated their decay. One wore a Barcelona football shirt.
Some vehicles slowed down to look. Others sped past to avoid the sight. A hot breeze blew across the field.
Last week, Beida and her children were finally allowed to leave the camp where they had been held for five months. In their absence, their home had been destroyed by a local militia, so she moved in with relatives in another nearby village. Reuters brought the news of her husband’s fate.
“We have nowhere to go,” she said, stroking the hair of one of her three sons asleep on the floor beside her. “How are we to blame?”
Reporting by Isabel Coles; editing by Peter Graff