ISIS Bulldozes Ancient Assyrian City: Iraqi Gov’t

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A file picture taken on July 17, 2001 shows Iraqi workers cleaning a statue of winged bull at an archeological site in Nimrud, 35 Kilometers (22 miles) southeast of the northern city of Mosul. AFP/Karim Sahib

Published Friday, March 6, 2015

Updated at 1:12 pm (GMT +2): The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has begun bulldozing the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq, the government said, in the jihadists' latest attack on the country's historical heritage.

ISIS "assaulted the historic city of Nimrud and bulldozed it with heavy vehicles," the tourism and antiquities ministry said on an official Facebook page on Thursday.

An Iraqi antiquities official confirmed the news, saying the destruction began after noon prayers on Thursday and that trucks that may have been used to haul away artifacts had also been spotted at the site.

"Until now, we do not know to what extent it was destroyed," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The militants gained some experience of dealing in antiquities after taking control of large parts of Syria.

"Islamic State members came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground," a tribal source from near Mosul, where ancient Nimrud is located, told Reuters.

"There used to be statues and walls as well as a castle that Islamic State has destroyed completely."

Nimrud, one of the jewels of the Assyrian era, was founded in the 13th century BC and lies on the Tigris River around 30 kilometers (18 miles) southeast of Mosul, Iraq's second city and ISIS's main hub in the country.

"I'm sorry to say everybody was expecting this. Their plan is to destroy Iraqi heritage, one site at a time," said Abdel-Amir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist from New York's Stony Brook University.

"Hatra of course will be next," he said, referring to a beautifully preserved city in Nineveh province that is more than 2,000 years old and is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The UN cultural body's Iraq director, Axel Plathe, called Thursday's reported destruction "another appalling attack on Iraq's heritage."

The head of UNESCO condemned on Friday the destruction of Nimrud, saying it amounted to a "war crime."

"I condemn with the strongest force the destruction of the site at Nimrud," Irina Bokova said in a statement.

She said she had already spoken with the heads of the UN Security Council and International Criminal Court on the issue.

"We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity's cultural heritage."

Nimrud is the site of what was described as one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th century when a team unearthed a collection of jewels and precious stones in 1988.

The jewels were briefly displayed at the Iraqi national museum before disappearing from public view. But they survived the looting that followed the 2003 US invasion and were eventually found in a Central Bank building.

Most of Nimrud's priceless artifacts have long been moved to museums in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London and elsewhere but giant "lamassu" statues — winged bulls with human heads — and reliefs were still on site.

"UNESCO is determined to do whatever is needed to document and protect the heritage of Iraq and lead the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural artefacts, which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism," Bokova said. "At stake is the survival of the Iraqi culture and society."

The destruction at Nimrud came a week after the jihadist group released a video showing militants armed with sledgehammers and jackhammers smashing artifacts at the Mosul museum.

That attack sparked widespread consternation and alarm, with some archeologists and heritage experts comparing it with the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. However, some archeologists said that a portion of the statues destroyed in the video had been plaster copies, as the originals had been moved to Baghdad.

Bokova demanded an emergency meeting of the Security Council and called for the International Criminal Court to look into the Mosul museum destruction.

In early December, Bokova called for “protected cultural zone” in both Iraq and Syria, stressing the importance of cooperating with local actors and setting the Syrian city of Aleppo as a starting point.

ISIS spearheaded a sweeping offensive last June that overran Nineveh province, where Mosul and Nimrud are located, and swept through much of Iraq's heartland, gaining access to almost 2,000 of Iraq's 12,000 registered archeological sites.

The militant group espouses a strict Salafi interpretation of Islam, even deeming fellow Muslims who do not abide by their vision of Islam to be heretics. Its fighters have destroyed Shia and Sufi religious sites and attacked churches, tombs and shrines and burned precious manuscripts and archives in the parts of Syria and Iraq under their control.

The video released by ISIS last week showed militants knocking statues off their plinths and rampaging through the Mosul museum's collection. It also showed jihadists using a jackhammer to deface an imposing granite Assyrian winged bull at the Nergal Gate in Mosul.

"These artifacts behind me are idols for people from ancient times who worshiped them instead of God," a militant said in the video.

"What is known as Assyrians, Akkadians and others used to worship gods of rain, farming and war other than God and pay all sorts of tributes to them."

Many of the artifacts destroyed in the Mosul museum were from Nimrud and Hatra.

The Mosul region was home to a mosaic of minorities, including Assyrian Christians, who consider themselves to be the region's indigenous people.

Iraq's heritage already suffered a major blow in the lawlessness and looting that followed the toppling of former dictator Saddam Hussein by US-led forces in 2003, when looters torched buildings and ran off with treasures thousands of years old.

Only last month the national museum in Baghdad officially reopened after 12 years of painstaking efforts to recover nearly a third of the 15,000 pieces looted during the US-led invasion.

Iraqi security forces and allied fighters are battling to regain ground from the jihadists. They are currently engaged in their biggest operation yet, to retake the city of Tikrit, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad.

According to the UN, some 28,000 people have fled the Tikrit area as Iraqi forces advance towards ISIS.

"Military operations in and around Tikrit have precipitated displacement of an estimated 28,000 people to Samarra," the UN said in a statement Thursday.

"Field reports indicate that additional displacements are under way and that yet more families remain stuck at checkpoints," it said.

The newly displaced Iraqis join what the International Organization for Migration says are 2.5 million people already forced from their homes in the country.

Iraqi security forces, backed by Kurdish troops, pro-government volunteering fighters, and tribesmen on the ground, have managed to regain some ground from ISIS and push them back from around Baghdad, the Kurdish north, and the eastern province of Diyala.

But major operations to drive ISIS out of Nineveh are likely months away, leaving the province's irreplaceable historical sites at the mercy of militants.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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