BAGHDAD — Residents of Mosul have watched helplessly as extremists ruling the northern Iraqi city blew up some of their most beloved landmarks and shrines to impose a stark vision of Islam. Next up for destruction, they feared: the Crooked Minaret, a more than 840-year-old tower that leans like Italy’s Tower of Pisa.
But over the weekend, residents pushed back. When fighters from the Islamic State group loaded with heavy explosives converged on the site, Mosulis living nearby rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground and linked arms to form a human chain to protect it, two residents who witnessed the event said in interviews Monday. They told the fighters, If you blow up the minaret, you’ll have to kill us too, the witnesses said.
The militants backed down and left, said the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the militants. But residents are certain the militants will try again.
Over the past two weeks, the extremists ruling Iraq’s second-largest city have shrugged off previous restraint and embarked on a brutal campaign to purge Mosul of anything that challenges their radical interpretation of Islam. The militants — though Sunnis — target shrines revered by other Sunni Muslims because the sites are dedicated to popular religious figures. In the radicals’ eyes, that commits one of the worst violations of Islam: encouraging worship of others besides God.
The scene Saturday was a startling show of bravery against a group that has shown little compunction against killing anyone who resists it. It reflects the horror among some residents over what has become of their beloved city.
“The bombing of shrines ... has nothing to do with Islam,” government employee Abu Abaida, 44, said in a phone interview from the city. “They are erasing the culture and history of Mosul.” Like other residents, he spoke on condition that he be identified by a nickname or first name for fear of retaliation.
When militants from the Islamic State group first swept into Mosul in June, they proclaimed themselves the mainly Sunni city’s savior from the Shiite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad. Their first priority was to rebuild infrastructure and provide services such as garbage collection that the government had neglected. They held off from implementing their strict version of Islamic law, urging modesty for women but doing little to enforce it and generally leaving alone the Christian population that had not already fled. The aim, it seemed, was to avoid alienating a Sunni community whose support they needed.
Now, the honeymoon is over. In recent weeks, they have purged the city of nearly its entire Christian population, moved to restrict women and began the systematic destruction of city landmarks.
The Crooked Minaret — al-Manara al-Hadba in Arabic — was built in 1172 as part of the Great al-Nour Mosque, and it leans about 8 feet off perpendicular. It’s so well known that it is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar note. Its national symbolism appears to be one reason why the militants despise it — since they see nationalism as another anathema.Middle East - Iraq - Baghdad