ISIS blows up historic Mosul mosque where it declared caliphate, Iraqi military says

ISIS militants on Wednesday blew up the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, an Iraqi military statement said.

Militant group accuses U.S. aircraft of destroying the mosque

A still image taken from video shows the destroyed Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul in Iraq. (Iraqi Military/Reuters)

ISIS militants on Wednesday blew up the Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, an Iraqi military statement said, as Iraqi forces seeking to expel the group from the city closed in on the site.

It was from this medieval mosque three years ago that the militants' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a self-styled "caliphate" spanning parts of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS's Amaq news agency accused American aircraft of destroying the mosque, a claim swiftly denied by the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the hardline Sunni group.

"We did not strike in that area," coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian told Reuters by phone.

"The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS," said a statement from the commander of the coalition's ground component, U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. Joseph Martin.

'Another historical crime'

The Iraqi military's media office distributed a picture taken from the air that appeared 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 [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 Iraqis lovingly call the minaret Al-Hadba, or "the hunchback."

The minaret is seen earlier this month. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

A video seen on social media showed the minaret collapsing vertically in a vast billow of sand and dust, as a woman lamented in the background, saying "the minaret, the minaret, the minaret."

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 Iraqi military statement said.

An Iraqi military spokesman gave the timing of the explosion as 9:35 p.m. local time.

'A crime against the people of Mosul'

"This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated," said U.S. Maj.-Gen. Martin.

Iraqi forces said earlier on Wednesday they had started a push towards the mosque.

The forces on Tuesday had encircled the jihadist group's stronghold in the Old City, the last district under ISIS control in Mosul.

Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself "caliph" — or ruler of all Muslims — from the mosque's pulpit on July 4, 2014, after the insurgents overran vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate at the mosque, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014. (Reuters)

His black flag had been flying over its 45-metre 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 as "caliph."

Had hoped to capture mosque

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 battle for the liberation of Mosul is not yet complete, and we remain focused on supporting the Iraqi Security Forces with that objective in mind," said Martin.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the "caliphate" even though ISIS would continue to control territory west and south of the city, the largest they held sway over 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 U.S. and Iraqi military sources.

Minaret was vulnerable

The mosque is named after Nuruddin al-Zanki, a noble who fought the early crusaders 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: 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 specializing 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.