IRBIL, IRAQ – For more than 800 years, the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri has punctuated the skyline of Mosul, calling worshipers to prayer.
Its notable lean earned it the nickname al-Hadba, or “the hunchback,” and a special place in the hearts of residents.
But the Mosul icon was reduced to rubble Wednesday, the latest casualty in the war to wrest the city from Islamic State militants.
The militants blew up the mosque and its minaret as Iraqi forces came within about 50 yards of the building, according to Iraq’s joint operations command, which published a video that appeared to back up its claim, showing a blast emanating from the complex.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency contended that the mosque was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, which the U.S.-led coalition denied.
“We can confirm that the al-Nuri mosque was destroyed,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. “It was not as a result of coalition strikes. We did not strike in that area this evening.”
Over the past eight months, Iraqi security forces have slowly squeezed Islamic State militants into Mosul’s historic city center, around a square mile of territory on the banks of the Tigris. The city’s most symbolic landmark, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, was tantalizingly near.
It was in the mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader, made his only public appearance three years ago, declaring himself “commander of the faithful” and calling on all Muslims to travel to the group’s self-declared caliphate.
A month later, some Mosul residents said that the militants rigged the 50-yard-high Hadba with explosives as part of a campaign to destroy anything that may be considered idolatrous. It was only saved by incensed residents who gathered around it to protest.
“It would have been a blow to [ISIS] propaganda if the mosque was recaptured intact,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute and co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” “It would have been the most symbolic blow within its most symbolic stronghold.”
But Hassan said it was puzzling that the group would destroy the mosque itself now, rather than hunkering down to fight inside it and forcing the Iraqis or the U.S.-led coalition to destroy it.
The mosque was constructed on the orders of Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi in 1172. By the time Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta visited the mosque in the 14th century, the minaret had already acquired its distinctive lean and nickname.
In June 2014 the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said that it had begun work with the province’s governorate to stabilize and conserve the minaret, which it said was at risk of collapsing. Just days later, the city was overrun by the Islamic State.
The Washington Post’s Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.