MOSUL, Iraq — A loud explosion echoed in the Old City of Mosul in northern Iraq on Thursday night. Iraqi troops trying to retake the city from Islamic State forces were closing on the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and suddenly they saw thick smoke rising from where the mosque stood.
ISIS said the mosque was hit by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike. The U.S. has denied the claim and so have Iraqi forces.
Hussein, an Iraqi federal police officer who was near the old city the night the mosque exploded, told Yahoo News, “I only saw white smoke. It was about 25 minutes of smoke in the air. [ISIS fighters] were running away, they had black on.“
The offensive to recapture Mosul began last October. Iraqi forces took eastern Mosul in the first 100 days and started a new push for western Mosul in February.
Western Mosul proved to be more challenging. The streets are narrow and hundreds of thousands of civilians were left inside. Urban fighting intensified and ISIS snipers slipped in and out of neighborhoods targeting Iraqi forces.
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But the al-Nuri mosque, with its leaning minaret, still stood high over the city, as it has since its creation in the 12th century. It was named after a Turkish sultan, Nur ad-Din, who opposed Crusaders from the west and united Muslim dissidents under his rule. The mosque has great cultural and symbolic importance to the Iraqi people as a monument to Islamic history.
In 2014, as ISIS rose to power, its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a video on the steps of the grand mosque to announce the founding of its modern caliphate, or Islamic government.
Nearly three years later, the great mosque has fallen and been reduced to rubble. In the days after it was destroyed, Iraqi federal police said they saw some ISIS fighters run, including two who were shot dead. But others stayed, seeking to keep control of the central part of Mosul’s Old City.
Sgt. Hussein said he believed ISIS was trying to keep the mosque from falling into Iraqi army control for intelligence reasons. “It was the main office for ISIS,” he said. “They didn’t want the Iraqi military to take it.”
Other soldiers along the frontline believe that they mosque may have been booby-trapped and would have been dangerous for Iraqi troops to enter.
Iraqi forces and ISIS fighters are continually exchanging sniper and mortar fire over the rooftops in a shrinking zone of ISIS control.
One of the Iraqi snipers at the frontline, Sgt. Muqtaba Ibrahim, told Yahoo News, “We’re inside the city, and it’s difficult for snipers to see the enemy. If it was a desert, it would be easy for me. But the enemy moves from place to place, never staying in one position.”
Iraqi federal police are concentrating their efforts in the south side of old city. But more than 100,000 civilians are still left inside, according to the United Nations. Field hospitals on the outskirts of Mosul have had dozens of wounded and sick pass through, suffering from dehydration, malnutrition and bullet and shrapnel wounds.
And as Iraqi forces get closer to defeating ISIS in Mosul, they face the knowledge that they have lost a cultural treasure that had stood as a symbol of their faith for more than 800 years.
Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.
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