Isis ransacking of ancient Assyrian city confirmed by Iraq’s head of antiquities

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Attack on Dur-Sharrukin, the latest by group on country’s heritage, comes as Brussels prepares to discuss creation of safe havens for Iraqi minorities
A winged-bull statue from former Assyrian capital Dur-Sharrukin
A human-headed winged bull sculpture known as a lamassu from the Dur-Sharrukin, present day Khorsabad, on display at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. Photograph: Reuters
Kareem Shaheen in Beirut
Iraq’s director of antiquities has confirmed that Islamic State (Isis) militants have ransacked the ancient city of Dur-Sharrukin near Mosul, the group’s latest assault on the country’s millennia-old heritage.

News of the latest attack emerged as the European parliament prepared to discuss the creation of safe havens in northern Iraq to protect the country’s minorities. Accusations have also surfaced that Isis used chlorine gas against Iraqi forces attacking its stronghold in Tikrit.

“[Dur-Sharrukin’s] city walls were razed, and some elements of the temples, but we don’t know the exact extent [of the damage],” Iraq’s director of antiquities, Qais Rasheed, told Reuters. “Looting took place, and then the razing”.

The antiquities ministry acknowledged reports on Monday that Dur-Sharrukin, present day Khorsabad, had been desecrated by the militants in latest attack by Isis against Iraq’s Assyrian heritage. The group also destroyed artefacts at Mosul museum, burned historical manuscripts at the city’s library, destroyed a winged bull statue at the Nergal gate to ancient Nineveh and destroyed portions of the Assyrian fortress city of Hatra. It also bulldozed segments of the ancient city of Nimrud.

Qais Rasheed, head of Iraq's antiquities board

Qais Rasheed, head of Iraq’s antiquities board, confirms that Isis has razed parts of the 2,700-year-old city of Khorsabad. Photograph: Reuters

The only major site that appears not to have been attacked is the former Assyrian capital of Ashur, a Unesco world heritage site. Iraq’s antiquities ministry had condemned the reported attack on Dur-Sharrukin as part of an attempt by Isis to “erase the history of humanity”.

Dur-Sharrukin is a former capital of the Assyrian empire in Nineveh that dates back to the 8th century BC.

The European parliament was expected on Thursday to debate a resolution calling for safe havens to protect Assyrians and other minorities in Iraq’s Nineveh plains, which Isis seized control of during a rapid advance last summer.

Many of the region’s minorities, particularly Chaldean Christians, were driven from their ancestral homes out of fear of forced conversions. Isis has also attempted to starve and enslave thousands of the Yazidi minority and has also attacked Assyrian settlements across the border in Syria.

The allegation of ethnic cleansing “underlines in this context, the importance of ensuring a safe haven for the Assyrians and others at risk in the Nineveh plains”, says the resolution before MEPs in Brussels.

A Demand for Action, a rights group that campaigned for the EU resolution, said: “We will continue to take our message to the halls of power around the world and will never stop demanding justice for our innocent victims of this genocide and doing all we can to make a home for Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and other minorities in the Middle East.”

Confirmation of the attack on Dur-Sharrukin came as Isis – also known as Isil, or in Arabic Daesh – appeared on the verge of its first major setback in Iraq, with Iraqi forces led by Shia militias and backed by Sunni tribal fighters and Iraq’s army appeared poised to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown.

“There’s no doubt that the combination of the popular mobilisation forces and the Iraqi security forces, they’re going to run Isil out of Tikrit,” said Gen Martin Dempsey, tchair of the US joint chiefs of staff, in a briefing to the Senate, according to Reuters.

Video footage uploaded to the internet showed Iraqi civilians apparently celebrating as pro-government forces arrived in areas recaptured from Isis near Tikrit.

Asai’b Ahl al Haqq commander talks to with Isis counterpart on a captured walkie-talki

One video, posted earlier, showed a commander with Asai’b Ahl al-Haqq, one of the main militias involved in the campaign, informing an Isis commander on a captured walkie-talkie that they had taken the town of Bou Ajil on the approach to Tikrit and declaring that the pro-government forces would be victorious.
“We will not give you a single inch, and our dead are in heaven and your dead are in hell,” the distraught Isis commander is heard saying over the radio.

“Our martyrs are in heaven and your dead are in hell,” his Asa’ib counterpart replies.

But while Isis appeared to be on the retreat in Tikrit, accusations emerged that the group may have used chlorine gas against Iraqi forces there.
The BBC reported that it was shown videos by Iraqi officials that they said confirmed the use of chlorine gas in homemade bombs aimed at the advancing Iraqi forces, and that the resulting explosions sent thick plumes of orange smoke in the air.

The BBC said the canisters inside these bombs contained small concentrations of the chemical agent. No official accusations were made by Iraq.

However, an official with Asa’ib said it had encountered unexploded canisters laced with chlorine in northern Samarra on the approach to Tikrit, but that they had no reports of chlorine being used in the city.