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Iraqi Troops Drive IS Fighters from Key Town

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Shi'ite fighters sit on a military vehicle in Al Hadidiya, south of Tikrit, en route to the Islamic State-controlled al-Alam town, where they are preparing to launch an offensive on Saturday, March 7, 2015.

Shi'ite fighters sit on a military vehicle in Al Hadidiya, south of Tikrit, en route to the Islamic State-controlled al-Alam town, where they are preparing to launch an offensive on Saturday, March 7, 2015.

The Pentagon says Iraqi forces have driven Islamic State out of the western town of al-Baghdadi -- close to a military base where U.S. forces are training Iraqis.

The Combined Joint Task Force said Friday Iraqi forces and tribal fighters from the Anbar region successfully cleared the town of Islamic State, retaking the police station and three bridges across the Euphrates River.

The militants have held the bridges since September.

The task force said the U.S.-led coalition delivered "precise and effective" airstrikes on Islamic State targets in support of the Iraqis.

In another development, the U.S. top military officer said Friday he is concerned about Iran's increasing influence in Iraq with its backing of Shi'ite militias. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked about those concerns with reporters on a plane as he travels to Bahrain and Iraq.

His comments come just days after Baghdad launched an operation to re-gain Tikrit from the Islamic State group. Dempsey said he wants to determine whether the U.S. and Iran's activities are "complementary," and will voice his concerns with Iraqi leaders. The Shi'ite militias, funded and armed by Iran, are major players in the Tikrit offensive.

Devastation in Nimrud

Islamic State militants are demolishing the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq, a Tigris River archeological site whose destruction is part of a continuing campaign that "constitutes a war crime," the head of the United Nations’ cultural arm said Friday.

Map of Iraq showing Mosul and Nimrud

Map of Iraq showing Mosul and Nimrud

According to Iraqi officials and local residents, the militants moved in on the 3,000-year-old site shortly after noon prayers Thursday with heavy military vehicles, looting artifacts and bulldozing what they couldn’t plunder or tolerate.

"Then they proceeded to level the site to the ground," a tribesman told Reuters news agency. "There used to be statues and walls as well as a castle that [the] Islamic State has destroyed completely."

An Iraqi official acknowledged the extent of destruction is not yet known.

But the militants "defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity" with their continuing vandalism, Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement issued Friday.

"Leaving these gangs without punishment will encourage them to eliminate human civilization entirely, especially the Mesopotamian civilization, which cannot be compensated," the ministry’s statement said.

The ministry has asked the U.N. Security Council for help.

'Nothing is safe'

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova on Friday decried the assault as "yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country….

"We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime," she said, appealing to the "entire international community" to "put an end to this catastrophe."

Mechtild Rossler, deputy director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center in Paris, told VOA the agency fears at least three royal tombs at the Nimrud site may have been affected.

Nimrud is not on the World Heritage list, but Rossler said the city definitely has "a potential outstanding universal value." (A digital reconstruction of its Northwest Palace, for example, appears in a Metropolitan Museum of Art video.)

"Nimrud has been mentioned in sacred texts all over the world," including the Quran and Bible, "so it's a total misunderstanding that this is an object to be destroyed," Rossler continued. "... These people, they are destroying their own history and their own identity."

The attack is part of the militants’ continuing campaign to terrorize and financially profit, while erasing signs of pre-Islamic or non-Muslim history in swaths of Iraq and Syria under its control. The area includes the so-called cradle of civilization, spawning a mosaic of religions and ethnic groups. The group considers anything outside its narrow brand of Islam to be idolatrous or unworthy.

Echoes of Mosul Museum attack

Nimrud lies about 30 km (18 miles) southeast of Mosul, where an Islamic State video released last week showed jihadists rampaging through the prized Mosul Museum. They knocked over ancient statues and some replicas, smashing them with sledgehammers and drills. The wreckage included an artifact, dating back nearly 3,000 years, of an Assyrian winged-bull deity.

In the five-minute video, a jihadist announces: "Oh, Muslims, these artifacts behind me are idols for people from ancient times who worshipped them instead of God. The prophet removed and buried the idols in Mecca with his blessed hands. Our prophet ordered us to remove all these statues as his followers did when they conquered nations."

The Mosul attack sparked global outrage.

Archaeologists had feared Nimrud would be next on the jihadist list. Occupied from prehistoric times, the Assyrian city reached its zenith during the reign of King Ashurnasirpal II between 883 and 859 B.C. He made it the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It was known then as Kalhu and appears in the Old Testament as Calah.

FILE - Iraqi workers in 2001 clean an archeological site in Nimrud. The Islamic State group has bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city, Iraq's government says, March 5, 2015.

FILE - Iraqi workers in 2001 clean an archeological site in Nimrud. The Islamic State group has bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city, Iraq's government says, March 5, 2015.

British archeologist Henry Layard undertook the first formal excavations at Nimrud, working on the site in the mid-19th century. Sir Max Mallowan, husband of popular mystery writer Agatha Christie, later was among the Western and Arab archeologists working on the site.

Christie made several visits to the site when Mallowan led excavations there between 1949 and 1963. He found thousands of ivory plaques and figures predating 700 B.C. Most of those ivories, including many made in Egypt and the Levant, were transferred to the British Museum. Christie had cleaned some of them, explaining in her autobiography her method of using a fine knitting needle, an orange stick and face cream.

Nimrud enchanted the author, who described it as a beautiful spot.

"The Tigris was just a mile away, and on the great mound of the Acropolis, big stone Assyrian heads poked out of the soil," Christie wrote. “In one place there was the enormous wing of a great genie. It was a spectacular stretch of country – peaceful, romantic and impregnated with the past."

IS claims 'idol worship'

It is the past the jihadists are intent on wiping out. Since the militants last year seized swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, they have attacked archaeological and religious sites, claiming these promote apostasy and amount to idol worship.

Now archeologists fear the militants will turn their attention to Hatra, an ancient fortified city dating to the 3rd century B.C. and lying 110 kilometers southwest of Mosul. UNESCO describes the World Heritage site as the capital of the "first Arab Kingdom."

FILE - UNESCO chief Irina Bokova denounces Islamic State militants' attacks on cultural heritage.

FILE - UNESCO chief Irina Bokova denounces Islamic State militants' attacks on cultural heritage.

Last year, the militants blew up the Mosque of the Prophet Younis (Jonah) and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis; two ancient shrines in Mosul. They have also threatened to destroy Mosul’s 850-year-old Crooked Minaret, but locals so far have prevented that from happening.

Last week, Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad opened its doors to the public for the first time in more than a decade. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the move was intended to defy efforts “to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilization.”

Bokova said 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 artifacts, which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism."

Jamie Dettmer from Istanbul and VOA's Ira Mellman contributed to this report.

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