Iraqi forces push on to Tikrit as IS destroys ancient site
BAGHDAD (AP) Iraqi forces pressed their offensive against the Islamic State group Friday, expecting to reach the outskirts of the militant-held city of Tikrit, a day after the extremists reportedly "bulldozed" a famed archaeological site in the area.
In Paris, the head of the U.N.'s cultural agency said the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage such as the latest rampage at Iraq's archaeological site of Nimrud amounts to a "war crime."
The discovery of the treasures of Nimrud's royal tombs in the 1980s is considered one of the 20th century's most significant archaeological finds. It dates back almost 3,000 years and has been compared to King Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt.
The battle to wrest Tikrit Saddam Hussein's hometown from the Islamic State is a major test for the Iraqi forces and allied Shiite militias fighting on their side.
The governor of Salahuddin, Raed al-Jabouri, said that Iraqi forces expect to reach Tikrit later Friday. He told The Associated Press they still have not made it to Tikrit's east airport as some reports have suggested.
Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad, has been under the control of the Islamic State group since June, when the Sunni militants made a lightning advance across northern Iraq, prompting Iraqi troops to flee and abandon their weapons.
On Monday, Iraqi security forces launched a large-scale operation in an effort to retake the city from the militant group, but the offensive was stalled somewhat, with military officials saying the militants strategically lined roads leading to the city with explosives and land mines.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said late Thursday that the IS militants "bulldozed" the renowned archaeological site of the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq.
The destruction is part of the group's campaign to enforce its violent interpretation of Islamic law, destroying ancient archaeological sites it says promoted apostasy.
The ministry's report could not be immediately independently confirmed.
In Paris, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova appealed in a statement Friday to people around the world "especially youth" to protect "the heritage of the whole of humanity."
Bokova denounced "this cultural chaos" and said she had alerted both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
"The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime," she said. "I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity's cultural heritage."
Nimrud was the second capital of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that began in about 900 B.C., partially in present-day Iraq, and became a great regional power. The city, which was destroyed in 612 B.C., is located on the Tigris River just south of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, which was captured by IS in June.
The Islamic State extremists, who control a third of Iraq and Syria, have attacked other archaeological and religious sites, claiming that they promote apostasy. Their rampage against priceless cultural artifacts has sparked global outrage.
A video emerged last week on militant websites showing Islamic State militants with sledgehammers destroying ancient artifacts at the museum in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city that also fell into IS hands last year.
Last year, the militants destroyed the Mosque of the Prophet Younis or Jonah and the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis, two revered ancient shrines in Mosul. They also threatened to destroy Mosul's 850-year old Crooked Minaret, but residents surrounded the structure, preventing the militants from approaching.
Suzanne Bott, the heritage conservation project director for Iraq and Afghanistan in the University of Arizona's College of Architecture, Planning and Archaeology, worked at Nimrud on and off for two years between 2008 and 2010. She helped stabilize structures and survey Nimrud for the U.S. State Department as part of a joint U.S. military and civilian unit.
She described Nimrud as one of four main Assyrian capital cities that practiced medicine, astrology, agriculture, trade and commerce, and had some of the earliest writings.
"It's really called the cradle of Western civilization, that's why this particular loss is so devastating," Bott said. "What was left on site was stunning in the information it was able to convey about ancient life.
"People have compared it to King Tut's tomb," she said.
Also Thursday, the IS militants set fire to some oil wells outside Tikrit, an Iraqi oil official said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media. The smoky fires were apparently meant to obscure targets from government bombing runs, part of the wide-scale operation that began Monday.
The Ajeel oil field, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) northeast of Tikrit, was one of at least four fields seized by the militants as a source of crude oil to sell to smugglers to finance their operations.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.