IRAQI forces pressed their offensive against Islamic State (IS) militants yesterday, expecting to reach the outskirts of the militant-held city of Tikrit, a day after the extremists reportedly “bulldozed” a famed archaeological site in the area.
In Paris, the head of the United Nation’s cultural agency said the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage – such as the latest rampage at Iraq’s archaeological site of Nimrud, which has been compared to Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt – amounts to a “war crime”.
The battle to wrest Tikrit – Saddam Hussein’s hometown – from IS is a major test for the Iraqi forces and allied Shiite militias fighting on their side.
The governor of Salahuddin, Raed al-Jabouri, said Iraqi forces expected to reach Tikrit later.
Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, has been under the control of IS since June, when the Sunni militants made a lightning advance across northern Iraq, prompting Iraqi troops to flee and abandon their weapons.
On Monday, Iraqi forces launched a large-scale operation in an effort to retake the city, but the offensive stalled, with officials saying IS militants had lined roads leading to the city with explosives and land mines.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi ministry of tourism and antiquities has revealed the IS militants “bulldozed” the renowned archaeological site of the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq.
The destruction is part of the IS campaign to enforce its violent interpretation of Islamic law, destroying ancient sites it claims promoted apostasy.
In Paris, Unesco chief Irina Bokova appealed to the world – “especially [its] youth” – to protect “the heritage of the whole of humanity”.
The discovery of treasures in Nimrud’s royal tombs in the 1980s is considered one of the 20th century’s most significant archaeological finds.
In her statement, Ms Bokova denounced “this cultural chaos” and said she had alerted both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
“The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime,” she said. “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 was the second capital of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that rose around 900BC, partially in present-day Iraq, and became a great regional power. The city, which was destroyed in 612BC, is located on the Tigris River just south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, which was captured by IS in June.
The IS extremists, who now control about third of Iraq and Syria, have attacked other archaeological and religious sites, claiming that they amount to a rejection of Islam. Their rampage against priceless cultural artifacts has sparked outrage.
Earlier this week, a video emerged on militant websites showing IS fighters with sledgehammers destroying ancient artifacts at the museum in Mosul, which also fell into IS hands last year.
Suzanne Bott, the heritage conservation project director for Iraq and Afghanistan in the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Archaeology, described Nimrud as one of four main Assyrian capital cities that practiced medicine, astrology, agriculture, trade and commerce. “It’s really called the cradle of western civilisation, that’s why this particular loss is so devastating,” she said.
IS militants also set fire to oil wells outside Tikrit, an Iraqi official said, probably in a bid to obscure targets from government bombing runs.