MOSUL • Crawl through a labyrinth of narrow tunnels in near total darkness and suddenly they appear: Two great winged bulls dating from the Assyrian empire found intact under the ground of Mosul.
But as fighting rages to evict Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the main city in northern Iraq, it will be a race against time to save the archaeological treasures uncovered in the tunnels.
The militants dug the network of tunnels to plunder artefacts under a hill housing the tomb of Prophet Jonah, the Nabi Yunus shrine which they dynamited in July 2014.
"We fear it could all collapse at any time, entombing the treasures," said Ms Layla Salih, who is in charge of antiquities for Nineveh province. "There are cave-ins in the tunnels every day."
The Iraqi authorities discovered the underground labyrinth, from which ISIS plundered to sell on the black market, after they recaptured east Mosul at the end of January.
Miraculously, several choice pieces survived the looting and appear as the crouched visitor winds through the maze of tunnels with its scent of damp clay.
Ms Salih said the artefacts date back to the eighth century BC in the Assyrian period and hail from the palace of King Esarhaddon, whose existence in the area was known to Iraqi archaeologists.
Two mural sculptures in white marble show the winged bulls with only the sides and feet showing.
The tunnels lead to bas-reliefs with inscriptions in cuneiform alphabet and two mural sculptures of four women's faces on the front.
Ms Salih said ISIS had not been able to extract many of the treasures for fear of the hill collapsing altogether but other removable artifacts, especially pottery, were certainly plundered.
Meanwhile, Iraqi forces said yesterday they had recaptured the main government compound in western Mosul from ISIS, advancing into the heart of the city that the militants have controlled for nearly three years.
In a surprise pre-dawn raid, elite police units seized the government buildings in the Bab al-Tob neighbourhood and the square where the militants used to carry out public executions.
After five months of bitter fighting, it marks a significant step in Iraq's efforts to oust the militants from the northern Iraq city, although a large number of neighbourhoods in western Mosul have yet to be cleared.
Still head lie the narrow streets and alleyways of Mosul's old city, which present a challenge for armoured convoys. Around half the western side of the city is still held by the militants, said spokesman for Iraq's joint operations command Yahya Rasoul.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST