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Extensive cultural damage found in historic Iraqi city

A car bomb explodes next to Iraqi Special Forces armored vehicles as they advance towards Islamic State held territory in Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Troops have established a foothold in the city's east from where they are driving northward into the Tahrir neighborhood. The families in Tahrir are leaving their homes to flee the fighting.

Felipe Dana/AP

Nearly a month into the fight to retake Mosul, government forces pushed Islamic State militants out of nearby Nimrud, home to some of Iraq's richest archaeological treasures. And when soldiers finally surveyed the extremists' destruction of the ancient sites, one said that those who carried it out "don't have a place in humanity."

Intricate reliefs that once stood at the gates to the magnificent Assyrian palace lay in pieces: stone carvings of a face, half of a claw, part of a wing, fragments of script.

In April 2015, the Islamic State extremists released a shocking video that showed how they had hammered, bulldozed and blew up parts of the 13th century B.C. Assyrian capital in the Tigris River valley south of Mosul.

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Iraqi officers accompanied journalists to the site Wednesday, wandering through the piles of rubble and snapping photos of the damage that U.N. officials had once called "a war crime."

The Assyrian Ziggurat, nearly 3,000 years old and once one of the tallest surviving buildings of the ancient world, has been levelled. On palace walls, only small fragments of stone carvings remained. Two Assyrian winged-bull statues that once marked the palace entrance have been completely destroyed. In a palace doorway, four deep cracks defaced a large carving of an Assyrian guardian spirit.

"I didn't cry when Daesh destroyed my home, but I really cried when I saw the video of them destroying this site," said Sheikh Khaled al-Jabouri, a tribal fighter from the Nimrud area. "These ruins are not just important to the people of this area, but to all of Iraq."

Since they seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the IS militants, also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh, have destroyed other cultural treasures that they said promoted idolatry and violated their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.

"This was done by people who don't have a place in humanity," said Maj. Gen. Dhiaa al-Saadi, the deputy commander of Iraqi ground forces, as he surveyed the ruins.

Shortly after portions of the site were excavated in 1845, some carved slabs and massive statues were removed and sent to the British Museum in London where they remain to this day. The Iraqi national museum in Baghdad also houses winged bulls from the Nimrud site.

Army Sgt. Maj. Marwan Abbas said he had last been at the site when he was a teenager during a school trip from Baghdad, and seeing its current state broke his heart.

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"Before 2003, all Iraqis would come here for school picnics," Abbas said, describing how in the spring, the site was surrounded by green fields. Such trips were cancelled, he added, after the security situation deteriorated following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Over a decade later, with Iraq more divided than ever, its cultural heritage remains one of the few unifying forces.

As Iraqi forces have clawed back territory from IS since the grinding operation to retake Mosul began Oct. 17, authorities have found evidence of mass graves, torture and brutal prisons. They fear they will also find even more destruction of ancient treasures marking the country's rich history.

"We have information that all of the archaeological places in Mosul have already been destroyed," al-Saadi said.

Archaeologists and government officials have yet to visit the site to conduct a proper assessment, according to Iraqi officers at the scene.

Al-Jabouri, the local tribal fighter, said he doesn't believe any amount of restoration can repair what's been lost.

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"But we've heard that only 30 per cent of this site has been (properly excavated)," he said, "so maybe there is more still beneath the ground."

Inside Mosul, meanwhile, heavy fighting raged in the eastern Tahrir neighbourhood as Iraqi forces pushed deeper into the city. An IS suicide car bomber rammed an Abrams tank belonging to the Iraqi army, disabling it in a massive explosion. The crew was unharmed but the tank's turret and main gun were inoperable, and the vehicle could only move slowly, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.

Families fled their homes amid the fighting in the densely populated district, but some were caught up in the clashes. A 3-year-old girl was killed and five others were wounded from mortar shells fired by militants into the street.

In the same district, Iraqi forces arrested four people they described as militants — two Iraqis and two Arabs from another country. They were bound, blindfolded and locked inside a Humvee.

West of Mosul, a state-sanctioned Shiite militia taking part in the operation to retake the northern city advanced toward Tal Afar, a town on the road to Syria that had a Shiite majority population before it fell to predominantly Sunni Islamic State group militants in 2014.

Fierce clashes were underway outside the Tal Afar military airport, said Hezbollah Brigades spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini, without elaborating.

Later Wednesday, Youssef al-Kilabi, the spokesman for the Shiite militias' umbrella group, told Iraqi broadcaster al-Iraqiya in a telephone call that the militias had taken Tal Afar's airport. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

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