Islamic State jihadists on Sunday demolished the ancient archaeological city of Khorsabad, located 20 km east of Mosul, the latest in a series of historic monuments smashed by the terror group.
Also Sunday, Iraq's tourism and antiquities minister said the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against IS must try to protect archaeological sites being destroyed by the jihadists. IS smashed priceless artefacts at the Mosul museum, then bulldozed the city of Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century BC.
The jihadists may now have turned their attention to the extremely well preserved fortress city Hatra, which is more than 2,000 years old and a UNESCO world heritage site, with the United Nations condemning its reported "destruction."
"The sky is not in the hands of the Iraqis, the sky is not in our hands. Therefore, the international community must move with the means it has," Adel Fahad al-Shershab told journalists in Baghdad.
"We request aerial support," Shershab said. Asked specifically if he wanted coalition strikes to protect archaeological sites, he responded: "What I request from the international community and the international coalition is to carry out air strikes against terrorism wherever it is found."
The attacks on Iraq's archaeological heritage took place in IS-held areas in the northern province of Nineveh, where Iraq does not have security forces that are able to respond on the ground. Targeting militants destroying archaeological sites would be a departure for the coalition, which is waging a campaign of strikes aimed at weakening IS military capabilities in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The coalition announced that it had carried out 12 air strikes in Iraq from Saturday to Sunday morning, including two near Mosul that reportedly destroyed an IS unit and two "excavators", but it was unclear if these were involved in attacking historic sites.
"The site of Hatra is a site in the desert where it is possible to see any infiltration" from the air, Shershab said of the ancient city, which features a unique blend of eastern and western architecture.
"It was expected that they (IS) would destroy it," he said. But it remains unclear whether large-scale destruction was carried out at Hatra, whose thick walls and large buildings withstood two Roman invasions in the 2nd century AD. Shershab said his ministry had not been able to officially confirm what had happened because the area is held by IS.
The jihadists spearheaded a sweeping offensive last June that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition and Iran are battling to push them back. IS tries to justify the destruction of antiquities by saying they are idolatrous, but experts say the group traffics in them to fund its self-proclaimed "caliphate" and destroys only those pieces that are too bulky to be smuggled.
Shershab echoed the point on Sunday: "They say 'it is haram' (forbidden by Islam). At the same time they are selling (artefacts) and benefiting financially." The timing of the attacks suggests they are more for propaganda purposes than a matter of religious conviction, as the militants have controlled the areas where the sites are located for close to nine months before acting.
Over 300 IS jihadists return to UK
Around half the estimated 700 Britons who have gone to fight with Islamic State jihadists in Syria have returned home, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported.
The weekly broadsheet's figures, in a story about a leaked draft of the Home Office interior ministry's new counter-extremism strategy, go further than previous estimates, of around 500 individuals leaving and 250 returning.
Around 320 "dangerous" jihadists have come back to Britain, the newspaper said. The new counter-extremism plan involves targeting Muslim Sharia courts, a ban on radicals working unsupervised with children, and a requirement that job centers identify welfare claimants who may become radicalization targets, the report said.
There would also be welfare penalties to encourage people to learn English, in order to improve integration, and tighter rules on granting citizenship to ensure newcomers embrace "British values," the broadsheet said.
The Home Office declined to comment on the report when contacted by AFP. The Sunday Telegraph said it understood that the draft will be published before parliament is dissolved at the end of the month before the May 7 general election.