Baghdad: The United Nations on Friday condemned as a "war crime" the bulldozing by the Islamic State group of the ancient city of Nimrud, the jihadists` latest demolition of Iraq`s cultural treasures.
After rampaging through Mosul`s museum with sledgehammers and torching its library last month, IS on Thursday "bulldozed" the nearby ruins of Nimrud, according to the tourism and antiquities ministry.
Antiquities officials said IS militants had moved trucks last week to the site, which overlooks the Tigris river, 30 kilometres (18 miles) southeast of their main hub of Mosul.
"Until now, we do not know to what extent it was destroyed," one official said on condition of anonymity.
Nimrud was the latest victim of what appears to be a systematic campaign by the jihadists to decimate Iraq`s rich heritage.
"I`m really devastated. But it was just a matter of time, now we`re waiting for the video. It`s sad," said Abdulamir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist from Stony Brook University in New York.
He said that the site`s guards were denied access to Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century BC and was once considered the jewel of the Assyrian era.
Its stunning reliefs and colossal statues of winged bulls with human heads guarding palace gates filled the world`s museums in the 19th century.
A collection of 613 gold jewels, ornaments and precious stones found unearthed from a royal tomb in 1988 has been described as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.
"Their plan is to destroy Iraqi heritage, one site at a time," said Hamdani.
"Hatra of course will be next," he added, referring to a 2,000-year-old UNESCO-listed site known for its beautifully preserved temples blending Hellenistic, Roman and Eastern influences.
Irina Bokova, the head of the UN`s cultural body UNESCO, on Friday condemned the destruction of Nimrud "with the strongest force".
"We cannot stay silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime, and I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up against this new barbarity," she said.UNESCO has called for tougher action to protect the many heritage sites in the cradle of civilisation but little can be done in areas under jihadist control.
IS justifies the destructions by saying the statues are idolatrous but experts say the jihadists traffic antiquities to fund their self-proclaimed "caliphate" and only destroy the pieces that are too bulky to be smuggled.
Stuart Gibson, a UNESCO expert on museums, said pressure from the international community would have little impact on IS.
"We have also traditionally called upon the peoples of the region to recognise the irreplaceable value and cultural necessity in protecting their cultural heritage," he said.
"Unfortunately today the people in the region are exhausted and terrified. The remainder of us can only stand on the outside looking on in absolute despair."
IS still controls large parts of northern and western Iraq, but has been losing ground under mounting military pressure from Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces backed by a US-led coalition and Iran.
Baghdad launched a huge offensive involving 30,000 men on Monday to retake the city of Tikrit, in what commanders have said was a stepping stone for an even larger operation to free Mosul.
Civilians who face both brutal violence by IS and reprisal attacks by pro-government forces are again exposed to major risks.
Since they swept through Iraq`s Sunni heartland in June 2014, IS militants have destroyed a long list of religious and heritage sites, including Sunni shrines.
"UNESCO is determined to do whatever is needed to document and protect the heritage of Iraq and lead the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural artefacts, which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism," said Bokova.
"At stake is the survival of the Iraqi culture and society."
Most of Nimrud`s priceless artefacts have long been moved to museums, in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London and elsewhere but some giant "lamassu" statues of winged bulls and reliefs were still on site.