Islamic State militants on Wednesday blew up the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, Iraq’s military said in a statement, as Iraqi forces seeking to expel the group from the city closed in on the site.
It was from this medieval mosque three years ago that the militants’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” spanning parts of Syria and Iraq.
”Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” Iraqi Prime Minister said in a brief comment on his website, reports Reuters.
The Iraqis called the 150-foot (45-metre) leaning minaret Al-Hadba, or “the hunchback.” Baghdadi’s black flag had flown over it since June 2014.
Islamic State’s Amaq news agency accused American aircraft of destroying the mosque, a claim swiftly denied by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group.
“We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters by telephone.
“The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS,” U.S. Army Major General Joseph Martin, commander of the coalition’s ground component, said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The media office for Iraq’s military distributed a picture taken from the air that appeared to show the mosque and minaret largely flattened and reduced to rubble among the small houses of the Old City, the historic district where the militants are under siege.
A video seen on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a belch of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, “The minaret, the minaret, the minaret.”
The mosque was destroyed as Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units, which have been battling their way through Mosul’s Old City, got within 50 meters (164 feet) of it, according to an Iraqi military statement.
“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated,” said U.S. Major General Martin.
Iraqi forces said earlier on Wednesday that they had started a push toward the mosque.
”This will not prevent us from removing them, no, killing them not removing them, inside the Old City,” Lieutenant General Abdul Ghani al-Assadi, senior CTS commander in Mosul, said in a video posted over a messaging app.
The forces on Tuesday had encircled the jihadist group’s stronghold in the Old City, the last district under Islamic State control in Mosul.
Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph,” or ruler of all Muslims, from the mosque’s pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.