MOSUL (Iraq) • For its residents, Mosul will never be the same again after Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants blew up the leaning minaret and adjacent mosque that had graced the city for nearly 850 years, a historic landmark from where the terror group's leader declared a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
"When I looked out of the window and saw the minaret was no longer there, I felt a part of me had died," said Mr Ahmed Saied, a 54-year-old Iraqi schoolteacher.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's black flag had been flying on the 45m-tall minaret since June 2014, after ISIS fighters surged across Iraq, seizing vast swathes of territory.
The insurgents chose to blow up the al-Nuri mosque along with its famous minaret - affectionately called al-Hadba (the hunchback) - on Wednesday rather than see the flag taken down by United States-backed Iraqi forces battling through the maze of narrow alleys and streets of the Old City, the last district still under control of ISIS in Mosul.
The media office for Iraq's military distributed a picture taken from the air that showed the mosque and minaret largely reduced to rubble. A video on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically, throwing up a pall of sand and dust.
The mosque, built in 1172, was destroyed as Iraq's elite Counter-Terrorism Service fought its way to within 50m of it, according to an Iraqi military statement. An Iraqi military spokesman gave the timing of the explosion as 9.35pm.
"Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said yesterday on his website.
The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate", though ISIS would still hold territory west and south of the city.
US-backed militias are closing in on ISIS' Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. 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.
For residents of Mosul and those who care about Iraq's history, the destruction was yet another painful loss, after so many years of ISIS violently erasing a region's history.
"In the early morning, I climbed up to my house roof and was stunned to see the Hadba minaret had gone," said day-labourer Nashwan, who lives in the Khazraj neighbourhood near the mosque.
"I broke into tears. I felt I had lost a son of mine."
But 38-year-old Yasser Ali said: "Although it was Mosul's symbol and icon, there are people who have been killed. They are much more precious than the minaret."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES