IRBIL, Iraq — For more than 800 years, the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri has punctuated the skyline of Mosul, calling worshipers to prayer.
Its notable lean earned it the nickname al-Hadba, or “the hunchback,” and a special place in the hearts of residents.
But the Mosul icon was reduced to rubble Wednesday, the latest casualty in the war to wrest the city from Islamic State militants.
The militants blew up the mosque and its minaret as Iraqi forces came within about 50 yards of the building, according to Iraq’s joint operations command, which published a video that appeared to back up its claim, showing a blast emanating from the complex.
The Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency contended that the mosque was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, which the U.S.-led coalition denied.
“This is a crime against the people of Mosul and all of Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, commander of ground forces for the coalition, said in a statement. “The responsibility of this devastation is laid firmly at the doorstep of ISIS.”
Over the past eight months, Iraqi security forces have slowly squeezed Islamic State militants into Mosul’s historic city center, around a square mile of territory on the banks of the Tigris. The city’s most symbolic landmark, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, was tantalizingly near.
It was in the mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader, made his first and only public appearance three years ago, declaring himself “commander of the faithful” and calling on all Muslims to travel to the group’s self-declared caliphate.
During its brutal tenure, the group has destroyed churches, Shiite mosques, tombs, shrines and archaeological sites across Iraq and Syria.
Just a month after Baghdadi gave his speech, some Mosul residents said the militants rigged the 50-yard-high Hadba with explosives as part of their campaign to destroy anything that may be considered idolatrous. It was said to have been saved only by incensed residents who gathered around it to protest.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described the Islamic State’s act of destruction as an “official announcement of their defeat.”
Iraqi commanders had said they were planning to attack the mosque compound on Thursday morning.
“It would have been a blow to [ISIS] propaganda if the mosque was recaptured intact,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute and co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” “It would have been the most symbolic blow within its most symbolic stronghold.”
The mosque was constructed on the orders of Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi in 1172. By the time Moroccan scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta visited the mosque in the 14th century, the minaret had already acquired its distinctive lean and nickname.
The cause of its tilt is the stuff of local legend. Some say the minaret bowed in reverence as the prophet Muhammad passed overhead as he ascended to heaven. The city’s Christians said it leaned toward the tomb of the Virgin Mary.
But listing 253 centimeters off its perpendicular axis, the precarious minaret has long been a concern.
In June 2014, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said it had begun work with the province’s governorate to stabilize and conserve the minaret, which it said was at risk of collapsing. However, just days later, the city was overrun by the Islamic State.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.