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 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 on 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,” Abu Abaida, 44, a government employee, said by phone from the city. “They are erasing the culture and history of Mosul.” Like other residents, he spoke on condition he be identified by a nickname or first name for fear of retaliation.
When militants from the Islamic State group first swept into in 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 like 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.
“No place is safe,” said Dia, an engineering professor in Mosul. “If I say one wrong thing, I am dead.”
The Crooked Minaret — al-Manara al-Hadba in Arabic — was built in 1172 as part of the Great al-Nour Mosque, and it it leans about 2.5 meters off perpendicular. It’s so well known 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. Moreover, local legends surround the minaret, and extremists generally see such stories as un-Islamic inventions that mislead the faithful and must be purged.
Local lore, for example, has it that the minaret tilts because it bowed in reverence to the Prophet Muhammad as he made an ascent to heaven.
Nearly daily, the militants have been destroying some of the city’s most famed sites.
On Thursday, they lay a wall of explosives around the Mosque of the Prophet Younis — or Jonah, the prophet who in both the Bible and Quran was swallowed by a whale. They ordered everyone out of the shrine, which is said to contain the prophet’s tomb, and blew it up.
The next day, it was the turn of the Mosque of Sheeth, or Seth, said to be the burial site of the third son of Adam and Eve. On Saturday, they reduced to rubble the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis.
Last week, they removed the crosses on the domes and brick walls of the 1,800-year old Mar Behnam monastery, then stormed it, forcing the monks and priest to flee or face death. The move came days after jihadists proclaimed over loudspeakers from mosques that Christians must convert to Islam, pay a tax or die, prompting the flight of almost all the Christians who remained in the city.
Women’s rights are now being abruptly restricted. The militants hung banners at on the wall of the Heibat Khatoun mosque before Friday prayers instructing women to wear loose clothing and cover their faces. No bright colors. No patterns.
They then distributed a statement to tailors and shops that sell women’s clothes informing them of their newly imposed dress code, shopkeepers said. Several female mannequins were seen in shops with their faces covered.
“Even at the time of Prophet Muhammad, the there was no face veil,” said Um Farouq, 55, a Mosul resident. “These people with Daesh are just making up ideas that do not exist in Islamic Shariah,” she said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
The group had already shown its true colors in Syria, where it holds a large swath of the east and north. There, its fighters have banned music, imposed full veils, imposed taxes on Christians and killed people in main squares for defying their Shariah rules. Earlier this month, for the first time, they stoned to death two women accused of adultery.
Iraq’s Mosul was once famed for its religious and ethnic diversity, and it is one of few cities in Iraq where a significant number of Christians remained after the U.S.-led invasion. It was a traditional stronghold both for Islamic conservatives and more secular pan-Arab nationalists.
Mosulis who cannot bear the extremists’ rule have joined more than a million other Iraqis who have fled their homes in areas under the group’s control.
“The situation is becoming really miserable for us,” said Abdul-Rahman Odai, a 25-year-old from Mosul who fled to the Kurdish province of Dohuk with his family. He said militants have seized government buildings and the homes of local officials. “They will not stop until they take everything.”