BAGHDAD - Iraq has exhumed the remains of 470 people believed to have been executed by jihadists near Tikrit last year in what is known as the Speicher massacre, the health minister said Thursday.

“We have exhumed the bodies of 470 Speicher martyrs from burial sites in Tikrit,” Adila Hammoud said at a press conference in Baghdad.

In June 2014, armed men belonging or allied to the Islamic State group abducted hundreds of young, mostly Shiite recruits from Speicher military base, just outside the city of Tikrit.

They were then lined up in several locations and executed one by one, as shown in pictures and footage later released by IS.

Some were pushed into the Tigris river, others hastily buried in locations that were discovered when government and allied forces retook Tikrit from the jihadists about two months ago.

The highest estimate for the number of people killed in one of the worst atrocities committed by IS stands at 1,700.

The exhumed remains came from four burial sites, including one which contained 400 bodies, said Ziad Ali Abbas, the chief doctor at Baghdad’s main morgue.

“There were several layers of bodies all piled on top of each other,” he said, adding that 50 bodies were found in a second site and nine more in the two remaining graves.

He said forensic examination of the remains was conducted with foreign assistance, including from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Hundreds of families whose sons, fathers and brothers went missing at the time of the IS-led offensive in Iraq have been waiting for confirmation that their loved ones were among the Speicher victims.

Officials at Thursday’s press conference said the first list of names would be released next week, after weeks of DNA testing.

Identification documents the victims were carrying at the time of their capture were also found near burial sites.

The health minister said the figure of 470 was not final. “The work to exhume Speicher victims continues,” Hammoud said. “The morgue also continues its work to identify the bodies... It’s complicated work. It’s a huge case. It takes a lot of work to identify the victims,” she said.

Abbas said there were only 20 sufficiently qualified forensic scientists in Iraq, Kurdistan not included, capable of contributing to the investigation.

Officials had said in mid-April that up to 10 different suspected burial sites were identified in the Tikrit area as a result of its recapture by government forces in late March and the first days of April.

Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday Pentagon officials have begun to examine how the US military could better equip and train Iraqi troops after the recent fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to Islamic State insurgents.

Carter told reporters on his plane to Asia that he had convened a group of Defence policy officials and military officers from US Central Command and the Pentagon’s Joint Staff to look at how “we can enhance, hasten” the mission to train and equip Iraqi forces.

The initial meeting took place on Tuesday before Carter departed on a trip to Asia.

“The events of recent weeks there (in Iraq) have highlighted the central importance of having a capable ground partner and that’s what the purpose of our train-and-equip program is. So we are looking,” Carter said.

Ramadi, capital of the predominantly Sunni western Anbar province, fell to Islamic State militants last week after Iraqi security forces withdrew.

The capture of the city was the militants’ biggest victory since US and coalition forces commenced an air campaign last August to help Iraqi security forces halt the advance of the group, which has seized control of parts of Syria and Iraq.

Carter told CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Saturday that Iraqi troops vastly outnumbered Islamic State fighters and the city fell after “Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi rebutted Carter’s characterization and US President Joe Biden called the Iraqi leader to reassure him of American support, a move seen as damage control.

But a Pentagon official said Carter stood by his comments.

Carter told reporters aboard the plane that it was important to review the US training effort in light of Ramadi to see “what we can do to enhance the effectiveness.”

“I think training and equipment affect the effectiveness of the forces and therefore ... their confidence in their ability to operate, so there is a direct relationship,” he said.

Carter said it was “extremely important” to involve Anbar’s Sunni tribes in the fight. A senior Defence official said later Carter was not considering directly arming Sunni tribes, which would be a major shift in policy. Current US strategy calls for providing any weapons directly to the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, which in turn would distribute them to Sunni tribes and Kurds.