Iraqi soldiers use detectors to slowly sweep a grass field dotted with dirt mounds for explosives to ensure the search for people massacred by jihadists does not leave more dead.
Another digs into one of the dozens of mounds in former president Saddam Hussein’s Tikrit palace complex with a shovel, but finds nothing, after which a yellow backhoe slowly scrapes it away entirely.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group executed hundreds of mostly Shiite recruits last June in what is known as the Speicher massacre, named for the military base near which they were captured.
Mass graves containing the remains of dozens of people believed to have been slain in the massacre have already been discovered in the sprawling palace complex, and there are more to come.
IS planted hundreds of bombs in Tikrit, a city north of Baghdad that Iraqi forces recaptured last week, and areas must first be checked for explosives before they can be searched for bodies.
Soldiers are working “to search for traps… and bombs and explosives,” using detection devices as well as visually and by hand, says Haiwa Ali Mohammed, who was earlier digging through the dirt mound.
No explosives have been found so far, he says.
Two more soldiers wearing gas masks arrive later to test for chemicals such as chlorine, which IS has rigged to explosives in the past.
The palace complex has lost much of its splendour since Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, especially after the area was seized in an IS-led offensive that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad last June.
The hulking wrecks of palaces smashed by shelling or air strikes loom near the dusty field where the soldiers are searching, while other buildings are pockmarked by bullets.
Haider Majid, an employee of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi`s office working on the Speicher issue, says the remains of more than 60 people have been exhumed so far. Thirteen grave sites have been found — 10 in the palace complex and three outside, he says.
Closer to the Tigris River, which runs along the east side of the complex, churned dirt and discarded rubber surgical gloves mark a site where bodies have been exhumed.
Small white candles and plastic flowers have been left in the area and flags of Shiite paramilitary groups fighting alongside Iraqi government forces are planted in the ground.
While the candles and flowers give it the feel of a memorial, the area is also littered with water bottles and other trash.