The Islamic State has blown up The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in western Mosul, according to U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The mosque, known as “the hunchback” due to its distinctive leaning minaret, was built nearly a millennium ago, and carries symbolic weight in Iraq and the greater Middle East.
The Great Mosque of al-Nuri also carries symbolic weight for the terror group: It’s where ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his first speech as caliph in 2014, days after the terror group declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has held the city as its de-facto capital in Iraq since then, using it as a central hub for commerce and illegal oil sales, and stealing stores of weapons and cash from the Iraqi forces who had abandoned the city.
“The Daesh (Islamic State) terror gangs committed another historical crime by blowing up the al-Nuri mosque and its historical al-Hadba minaret,” an Iraqi military statement said.
But ISIS, over their newswire Amaq, contradicted reports from Iraqi forces, claiming instead that the U.S. was behind the mosque’s destruction. The U.S.-led coalition forcefully contested that claim, saying in a statement that the “responsibility for this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS.” The coalition added that it had confirmed through drone surveillance that the mosque was destroyed. An investigation is underway.
Taking the mosque back from ISIS militants, who have waged a long and bloody campaign to hold the city since Iraqi forces began their offensive eight months ago, would have been a symbolic victory for U.S. and Iraqi coalition forces.
The U.N. estimates that ISIS is still holding up to 100,000 civilians in Mosul, whom humanitarians worry could be used as human shields during combat. Reports coming out Mosul for the last several months bolster such concerns.
Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition have been advancing in Mosul since the offensive started in October of 2016. Earlier on Wednesday, Iraqi forces were 15 meters from the mosque in western Mosul.
The Iraqis forces took hold of the eastern part of Mosul in January, but the western area, with its winding roads and small buildings, has proved more difficult to rest back. The Old City in West Mosul has been the site of the deadliest fighting in the course of the 8-month-long offensive.
The Iraqi army believes there to be only 300 ISIS fighters left in Mosul; there were 6,000 at the start of the offensive, according to Reuters.
The terror group has a long history of destroying, looting, and selling ancient Muslim artifacts. In January, ISIS demolished a famous Tetrapylon and the facade a Roman theater in Palmyra in central Syria. In 2015, a video surfaced showed ISIS fighters smashing 3,000 year-old statues in the Mosul Museum in Iraq.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the remaining 300 ISIS fighters left in Mosul as simply Iraqi fighters. The story has been updated.