The extremist group Islamic State (IS) has blown up an ancient mosque in Mosul in what Iraq’s prime minister called an admission by the militants that they are losing the fight for the country’s second-largest city.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry said the group detonated explosives inside the Grand Al-Nuri Mosque late on June 21 as IS militants battled to stop advancing pro-government forces.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi tweeted early on June 22 that the destruction of the mosque and its iconic leaning minaret nicknamed "the hunchback" was "an official declaration of defeat."
The mosque, built more than 800 years ago, was where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi commanded allegiance in July 2014 following the IS group’s declaration of a "caliphate."
Before the mosque's destruction, Iraqi forces had encircled the IS stronghold in the Old City, the last district under the militants' control in Mosul.
Iraq's military said the militants blew up the mosque as Iraqi forces were advancing toward targets deep into the heavily populated area and got to within 50 meters of the mosque. It called the move a "historical crime."
U.S. Army Major General Joseph Martin, a senior U.S. commander in the battle against IS, called the mosque's devastation "a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq" and "an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated."
"This new destruction deepens the wounds of a society already affected by an unprecedented humanitarian tragedy," UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement.
Work begun by UNESCO to safeguard the 12th-century minaret in 2012 "had to be interrupted due to the conflict," Bokova said, adding that "a comprehensive study for the conservation of the minaret has been completed and could be useful in the future."
The destruction of two of Mosul's best-known landmarks adds to a long list of cultural and religious heritage the militants have destroyed in Iraq and Syria.
IS militants, who seized control of Mosul in June 2014 during their lightning advance in Syria and Iraq, had previously targeted the minaret, but residents of Mosul protected the mosque at that time by creating a human chain around it.
Iraqi officials had privately expressed the hope that the mosque could be captured in time for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. The first day of Eid falls this year on June 25 or 26 in Iraq.
But because of the mosque's close association with Baghdadi's attempt at establishing a caliphate, Mosul residents told reporters they feared it would be targeted if the group ever were on the verge of losing control over the city.
The IS-affiliated Amaq news site claimed after the blast that the mosque was destroyed by a U.S. air strike, but that claim was quickly denied by the anti-IS coalition, which said no strikes were carried out in the area on June 21.
The mosque was named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a nobleman who fought the early crusaders from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
It was built with seven bands of decorative brickwork in complex geometric patterns ascending in levels towards the top, similar to designs found in Persia and Central Asia.
The minaret started listing centuries ago and was long considered an endangered monument.