(Reuters) Most of the bodies that wash up on the bridge in northern Iraq have their hands bound, eyes blindfolded and a bullet to the back of the head.
The ones that have been dead longest float on the surface, buoyed by the gasses produced as they decompose. Those killed recently tumble in the current that drags them down the River Tigris.
Their identity, and that of their killers, is a mystery.
“Nobody knows,” said a mother who has seen more than half a dozen corpses drift past her house overlooking the river near the town of Qayyara in recent months. “Many more could have gone past in the night.”
ISIS militants were driven out of Qayyara in August last year. The town is 60 km down the Tigris from Mosul, the last major bastion where the fighters are still battling against government forces.
Some officials say the floating dead are victims of the militants, who killed hundreds if not thousands of opponents when they ruled the area.
Others, however, say the evidence points elsewhere: towards extra-judicial killings of people accused of having joined the militants, now that the territory is under government control.
“Most of it is score-settling,” said an intelligence officer in Qayyara. That includes the killing of ISIS suspects by elements of the security forces: “There are security agencies that say ‘I won’t bother myself with the investigation’.”
The local police chief, Colonel Fawzi Jameel Sultan, insisted that the bodies were mostly victims of the fighters. Either the corpses had floated down from insurgent-held Mosul, or they had only just been dredged up by spring rain, killed last year when the militants still controlled the area.
But a senior officer in the security apparatus contradicted him. “Not all of them were killed by Daesh,” the officer said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The bodies could not have floated down from Mosul because there are barriers around 30 km south of the city to catch debris, said the officer on condition of anonymity. And some are only one or two months old, killed long after the fighters left.
Once the bodies are identified, it will be easier to discern a motive, he said: “If the (victim) worked for Daesh that means the perpetrators were probably people who were harmed by Daesh.”
Human Rights Watch Iraq researcher Belkis Wille said that if the victims were not killed by ISIS, the description of bound and blindfolded bodies “strongly suggested” they were examples of extrajudicial executions by “state-affiliated forces”, rather than vigilante justice.