MOSUL/BAGHDAD (REUTERS, AFP) – The destruction of a Mosul mosque where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his first sermon as leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group is an admission of defeat, Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday (June 22).
“It’s an official declaration of defeat,” Haider al-Abadi said in a statement issued hours after Iraq's military said ISIS militants had blown up the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul, and the iconic “Hadba” leaning minaret next to it, on Wednesday.
It was from this medieval mosque that the militants’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a self-styled “caliphate” spanning parts of Syria and Iraq three years ago.
ISIS' Amaq news agency accused American aircraft of destroying the mosque.
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The Iraqi military’s media office distributed a picture taken from the air that appears to show the mosque and minaret flattened in the middle of the small houses of the Old City, the historic district where the militants are besieged.
“The Daesh (ISIS) terror gangs committed another historical crime by blowing up the al-Nuri mosque and its historical al-Hadba minaret,” the Iraqi military statement said.
The explosions happened as Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service units, which have been battling their way through Mosul’s Old City, got to within 50 metres of the mosque, the statement said.
Iraqi forces earlier on Wednesday said they had started a push towards the mosque. A US-led coalition is providing air and ground support to the Mosul offensive which began in October 2016.
The forces had encircled on Tuesday the jihadist group’s stronghold in the Old City, the last district under their control in Mosul.
Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph”, or ruler of all Muslims, from the pulpit of the mosque on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran parts of Iraq and Syria.
His black flag had been flying over its 45m leaning minaret since June 2014.
Baghdadi’s speech from the mosque was also the first time he revealed himself to the world, and the footage broadcast then is to this day the only video recording of him.
MINARET WAS VULNERABLE
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 the Eid falls this year on June 25 or 26 in Iraq.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the “caliphate” even though Islamic State would continue to control territory west and south of the city, the largest they had control of in both Iraq and Syria.
Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria, according to US and Iraqi military sources.
The mosque is named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a noble who fought the early crusades from a fiefdom that covered territory in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The mosque was built in 1172-73, shortly before his death, and housed an Islamic school.
By the time renowned medieval traveler Ibn Battuta visited two centuries later, the minaret was already leaning. Its tilt gave the landmark its popular name – al-Hadba, or the hunchback.
It was built with seven bands of decorative brickwork in complex geometric patterns ascending in levels towards the top in designs also found in Persia and Central Asia.
Nabeel Nouriddin, a historian and archaeologist specialising in Mosul and its Nineveh region, said the minaret has not been renovated since 1970, making it particularly vulnerable to blasts even if it was not directly hit.
The Mosque’s apparent destruction occurred during the holiest period of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, its final ten days. The night of Laylat ul-Qadr falls during this period, marking when Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to the prophet.