deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime, and I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up against this new barbarity,” she said on Friday.
Unesco has called for tougher action to protect the many heritage sites in one of the cradles of civilisation, but little can be done in areas under Jihadist control.
The destruction was met with condemnation and sadness on Baghdad’s Mutanabi Street, a favourite haunt of Iraqi intellectuals.
“After they killed the human spirit, they began killing civilisation,” Ibrahim Dawood, a writer and poet, said of IS.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top cleric who is revered by millions, sharply criticised IS’s targeting of the Mosul museum and archaeological sites.
It demonstrates “their savagery and their barbarism and their hostility to the Iraqi people”, Sistani’s representative said on his behalf at weekly Friday prayers in Karbala.
IS tries to justify the destruction by saying the statues are idolatrous, but experts say the Jihadists traffic antiquities to fund their self-proclaimed “caliphate” and destroy only those pieces that are too bulky to be smuggled.
Stuart Gibson, a Unesco expert on museums, said pressure from the international community would have little effect on IS.
“We have also traditionally called upon the peoples of the region to recognise the irreplaceable value and cultural necessity in protecting their cultural heritage,” he said.
“Unfortunately today the people in the region are exhausted and terrified. The remainder of us can only stand on the outside looking on in absolute despair.”
IS still controls large parts of northern and western Iraq, but has been losing ground under mounting military pressure from Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces backed by a US-led coalition and by Iran.
Baghdad launched a huge offensive on Monday to retake the city of Tikrit, in what commanders have said was a stepping stone toward an even larger operation to free Mosul.
Since they swept through Iraq’s heartland last June, IS militants have destroyed a long list of religious and heritage sites, including churches and shrines.
Most of Nimrud’s priceless artefacts had long been moved to museums, in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London and elsewhere, but some giant “lamassu” statues of winged bulls and reliefs were still on site.
“My guess is that what they destroyed was probably the modern reconstruction of the palace walls” dating back to the 1960s, said Eleanor Robson, professor of ancient near eastern history at University College London, while still unequivocally condemning the attack. “So it’s probably not as horrendous as it sounds,” she said. “There’s a lot more underneath.”
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