MOSUL, Iraq — A loud explosion echoed in the Old City of Mosul in northern Iraq on Thursday night. Iraqi troops trying to retake the city from Islamic State forces were closing on the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and suddenly they saw thick smoke rising from where the mosque stood.
ISIS said the mosque was hit by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike. The U.S. has denied the claim and so have Iraqi forces.
Hussein, an Iraqi federal police officer who was near the old city the night the mosque exploded, told Yahoo News, “I only saw white smoke. It was about 25 minutes of smoke in the air. [ISIS fighters] were running away, they had black on.“
The offensive to recapture Mosul began last October. Iraqi forces took eastern Mosul in the first 100 days and started a new push for western Mosul in February.
Western Mosul proved to be more challenging. The streets are narrow and hundreds of thousands of civilians were left inside. Urban fighting intensified and ISIS snipers slipped in and out of neighborhoods targeting Iraqi forces.
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But the al-Nuri mosque, with its leaning minaret, still stood high over the city, as it has since its creation in the 12th century. It was named after a Turkish sultan, Nur ad-Din, who opposed Crusaders from the west and united Muslim dissidents under his rule. The mosque has great cultural and symbolic importance to the Iraqi people as a monument to Islamic history.
In 2014, as ISIS rose to power, its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made a video on the steps of the grand mosque to announce the founding of its modern caliphate, or Islamic government.