ISIS Destruction of Ancient Sites Denounced by Top Iraqi Cleric Sistani

Videos of ISIS destroying artifacts in Mosul have recently emerged and there has now been confirmation that the terror group have bulldozed he ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. ISIS MEDIA ORGANIZATION SCREENSHOT

Iraq's most senior Shia cleric has denounced the destruction of Iraq's rich heritage in the country's northern regions by the Islamic State, following Thursday's confirmation by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities that the terror group had bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud.

An aide to 84-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia authority in Iraq, delivered the cleric's Friday sermon in Karbala, a city situated approximately 100km (62 miles) southwest of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

This week, a combination of 30,000 Iraqi security forces, backed by Sunni and Shia militiamen launched a campaign to retake the city of Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, from ISIS after it swept through northern Iraq last summer.

Commenting on the offensive Sistani countered fears that it could turn into a sectarian conflict, due to the predominant involvement of Shia militias in the operation on the Sunni-majority city, by issuing a call for unity between all sects against the barbarism of ISIS.

"Thank you to the tribes of Salah ad-Din [the province where Tikrit is situated] who are fighting Daesh [an Arabic term for ISIS] with few weapons and supplies," said the aide, delivering Sistani's message. "The government should support them with all it can."

"With Daesh destroying Mosul's treasures and the heritage of civilisation, this should make all united against it for its barbarism," he added.

Sajad Jiyad, Iraq expert and director of research at independent consultancy Integrity, believes that Sistani is a crucial voice in the Shia-led battle to retake Tikrit because he holds higher influence with Shia militias than that of the coalition government in Baghdad, which may prevent the outbreak of a sectarian conflict.

"The timing is spot-on, he realises the importance of having both the local people and the residents of Tikrit being involved in this effort and to not make it look like a sectarian effort only," he says.

"The message is to the Shia fighters and it is also to the government. I think he will have a lot of the Shia fighters listening to him."

Tikrit was the site of mass executions of Iraqi forces by ISIS militants at the time of its capture last June. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report claimed that approximately 770 captured soldiers were killed after the terror group took control of former U.S. military base in the city, Camp Speicher, in executions which HRW advisor Fred Abrahams described as "crimes against humanity".

The province of Salah ad-Din, where Tikrit is situated, hosts the city of Samarra, which contains the Imam al-Askari shrine, one of the most important holy sites in the world for Shia Muslims.

The crushing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud - which lies approximately 30km (18 miles) southeast of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul - by the terror group has sparked international condemnation with the UN's cultural agency, UNESCO, describing the action as a "war crime".

The Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said that ISIS's actions "continued to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity". The group see ancient statues and shrines as jahili (pre-Islamic) and are intolerant of antiquities that depict humans.