By Kawa Omar and Ahmed Rasheed
MOSUL/BAGHDAD, Iraq (Reuters) – The leaning al-Hadba minaret that towered over Mosul for 850 years lay in ruins on Thursday, demolished by retreating Islamic State militants, but Iraq’s prime minister said the act marked their final defeat in the city.
“In the early morning, I climbed up to the roof of my house and was stunned to see the Hadba minaret had gone,” Nashwan, a day-laborer who lives near the mosque, said by phone. “I felt I had lost a son of mine.”
His words echoed the shock and anger of many over the destruction of the Grand al-Nuri Mosque along with its famous minaret, known affectionately as “the hunchback” by Iraqis.
The demolition came on Wednesday night as Iraqi forces closed in on the mosque, which carried enormous symbolic importance for Islamic State (IS).
It was there that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” as militants seized swathes of Syria and Iraq. He proclaimed himself the caliph, ruler of all Muslims, from the mosque’s pulpit.
His black flag had been flying on the 150-foot (45-metre) minaret since June 2014, after Islamic State fighters surged across Iraq.
Russia said on Thursday there was a high degree of certainty Baghdadi was dead, according to RIA news agency. Moscow said last week its forces might have killed him, but Western and Iraqi officials are skeptical.
Baghdadi has left the fighting in Mosul to local commanders and is believed to be hiding in the border area between Iraq and Syria.
LIBERATION “IN DAYS”
Some analysts said the destruction of the mosque could in fact speed the advance of government forces, which had been slowed by fear of damaging it.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went further. “Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” he said on his website.
“It’s a matter of a few days and we will announce the total liberation of Mosul,” he later told reporters in Baghdad, pledging to rebuild the mosque and other…