âYou can find it on money notes, you can find it in scrapbooks,â said Rasha Al Aqeedi, who grew up in Mosul and is now a research fellow at the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. âItâs everywhere. I donât know how to put it into words. Itâs just something people always identified with because it was always there.â
Ali al-Nashmi, a prominent Iraqi historian, said, referring to the terrorists: âThese dogs, they are the worst of what God has created. I swear to God I cannot imagine Mosul without Al Hadba.â
The long campaign for control of Mosul was closing in on the part of the Old City where Al Hadba beckoned, thrusting toward the sky. Capturing the mosque, built by Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a ruler who in the 12th century unified Arab forces against crusaders from Europe, would have provided an important symbolic moment for the Iraqi security forces, who have taken heavy casualties in day after day of street battles and ambushes by the Islamic State.
âImagine the Iraqi flag on this mosque, and everyone taking selfies,â Ms. Aqeedi said, envisioning what might have been.
Earlier Wednesday evening, Iraqi officers had indicated that on Thursday they planned to begin an assault on the mosque.
Shortly after the Iraqi military issued a statement announcing that the Islamic State had destroyed the mosque, the terrorist group used its news agency to claim that the mosque had actually been destroyed by an American airstrike.
Col. Ryan Dillon, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, said that the coalition had confirmed, through drone surveillance footage, that the mosque had been destroyed. âWe donât know how,â said Colonel Dillon, who added that the coalition was investigating.
But shortly after, the United States Central Command issued a statement bluntly accusing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, of destroying the mosque. âAs our Iraqi Security Force partners closed in on the Al Nuri mosque, ISIS destroyed one of Mosul and Iraqâs great treasures,â Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the American commander for the operation, said in the statement. âThis is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq, and is an example of why this brutal organization must be annihilated.â
In denying the Iraqi forces a moment of victory â many had anticipated that recapturing the mosque would become an iconic visual image of the battle for Mosul â the Islamic State sought to claim a propaganda victory for itself, by blaming the destruction on the coalition.
Many Sunni Arabs in the Middle East, who have suffered under the Islamic State, believe that the terrorist group is a tool of their enemies â Shiite Iran, the West or Israel. And the loss of such a famous mosque is likely to only inflame those conspiracy theories.
âThis is my worst fear,â Ms. Aqeedi said. âIt has strategic implications for the long term, if thereâs the perception that the west is involved in the destruction.â
Many Mosul residents see the Islamic State in such conspiratorial terms. âMy message to ISIS, who were sent to erase the history of this city, is I tell them donât be happy about your outrageous action,â Ahmed al-Mallah, 45, said. âMosul people built Al Hadba minaret. And we will build a thousand minarets after kicking out ISIS, who were sent to us to carry out agendas that attempt to eradicate the Sunnis and erase them from this city.â
Almost from the beginning of its rule, the Islamic State systematically destroyed or damaged one important monument or shrine after another: the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, the Mosul Museum, the ancient city of Nimrud. In Mosulâs library, militants burned thousands of old books and manuscripts.
In doing so, the extremist group justified the destruction on religious grounds â that its harsh brand of Islamic law deems such things heretical. But in destroying an important mosque, especially the one in which the groupâs leader, Mr. Baghdadi, made his famous declaration, the Islamic State simply seemed intent on erasing what was soon, once the city falls, to become a symbol of the failed caliphate.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq called the leveling of the mosque a final act of depravity for the group. It was, he said, the âofficial announcement of their defeat.â
In 2014, after the Islamic State had destroyed many shrines and monuments, residents of Mosul, fearing the minaret might be next, gathered at the site in protest. It was one of the few times that civilians ever confronted Islamic State fighters in the city.
Throughout the territory it controls, the Islamic State has routinely used mosques for battlefield purposes. New York Times reporters have visited mosques whose minarets were used as sniper nests, whose prayer halls were turned into bomb-making factories and whose courtyards were used to store weapons.
For Mosulâs people, the erasure of the mosque and minaret from their cityâs skyline only added to their growing ledger of losses.
âWe have lost everything, our money and our things,â said Abdullah Ahmed, 33, who fled Mosul and hopes to return soon, after the battles finish. âISIS destroyed everything. My life, and the life of my family. There is no longer anything important to me.â