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Ancient city of Nimrud lies in ruins after 'IS' occupation

"Islamic State" militants had leveled the ancient Assyrian capital before the Iraqi army retook the city earlier this week. What was once one of the region's richest archaeological sites now no longer exists.

The Iraqi military liberated the ancient city of Nimrud this week, but the old Assyrian capital - once the heart of an empire that stretched across the Middle East - now lies in ruins.

In 2014, jihadists from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group seized and ransacked what was once one of the richest archaeological sites in the region. Since then, the 3,000-year-old city appears to have been largely leveled, with IS justifying the destruction as wiping out allegedly un-Islamic idols that are banned under their extreme interpretation of Islam.

"When you came here before, you could imagine the life as it used to be," Ali al-Bayati, a local leader and tribal militia commander, told news agency AFP. "Now there is nothing."

Reports and images from Nimrud depict shattered statues, wrecked palaces and the remains of the ziggurat - built in the 9th century BC and once one of the tallest structures left from the ancient world, at some 50 meters (54 yards) - reduced to just a fraction of its height.

AFP bureau chiefs and photographers in the region tweeted images contrasting how Nimrud looked before it was overrun by IS, and how it looks today.

"They want to make a new picture of Iraq - with nothing before Daesh," Bayati said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

Last year, IS released video footage of militants blowing up the remnants of Nimrud's famed Northwest Palace, once center of the Assyrian empire. The video also showed militants smashing carvings and murals with sledgehammers and power tools.

AFP photographer Max Delany tweeted a video depicting heaps of rubble where the palace used to stand.

He also shared images of the smashed murals.

While justifying the destruction as removing allegedly idolatrous Islamic sites, this has not stopped IS from looting and selling these precious artifacts to fund its operations. UNESCO has condemned Nimrud's destruction as a war crime. 

Archaeologists to assess damage

It is now up to archaeologists to evaluate the damage wrought by IS. However, it may be still be some time before they will be able to enter the site as Iraqi forces continue to push back nearby IS militants as part of the military's operations to retake Mosul, which lies some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Nimrud.

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Military forces will also need to investigate and clear the site of explosives and other potential dangers left behind by IS. "There are many [bombs] and booby traps suspected," Lieutenant Wissam Hamza of an army explosives disposal team said. "So we want to find them and clear the area - then after that it can be called safe."

Iraqi forces have gained significant ground from IS in the last month since the operation began. However, weeks, if not months of fighting still lie ahead.

IS' destructive path

The IS group still controls the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh in central Mosul while Khorsabad, another nearby Assyrian site, lies near the front line of the current conflict.

Nimrud is just one of many ancient regions combed and destroyed by IS. To the south, militants ransacked the 2000-year-old ancient city of Hatra in 2014, blowing up its famous temple and looting numerous artifacts.

In neighboring Syria, IS was driven out of the ancient city of Palmyra, once a prosperous metropolis, eight months ago. However, liberating forces found large parts of the World heritage site destroyed, including the famous 2,000-year-old Baal Shamin temple.

dm/msh (AFP, dpa)

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