BAGHDAD — Residents of Mosul have watched helplessly as extremists ruling the northern Iraqi city blew up some of their most beloved landmarks and shrines to impose a stark vision of Islam. Next up for destruction, they feared: the Crooked Minaret, a more than 840-year-old tower that leans like Italy's Tower of Pisa.
But over the weekend, residents pushed back. When fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria converged on the site, Mosulis living nearby rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground and linked arms to form a human chain to protect it, two residents who witnessed the event told the Associated Press on Monday.
They told the fighters, who carried heavy explosives: If you blow up the minaret, you'll have to kill us too, the witnesses said.
The militants backed down and left, said the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
But residents are certain the militants will try again. Over the past two weeks, the extremists ruling Iraq's second-largest city have shrugged off previous restraint and embarked on a brutal campaign to purge Mosul of anything that challenges their radical interpretation of Islam. The militants — though Sunnis — target shrines revered by other Sunni Muslims because the sites are dedicated to popular religious figures. In the radicals' eyes, that commits one of the worst violations of Islam: encouraging worship of others besides God.
The scene on Saturday was a startling show of bravery against a group that has shown little compunction against killing anyone who resists it. It reflects the horror among some residents over what has become of their city.
"The bombing of shrines … has nothing to do with Islam," Abu Abaida, 44, a government employee, said by phone from the city. "They are erasing the culture and history of Mosul." Like other residents, he spoke on condition he be identified by a nickname or first name for fear of retaliation.
When militants from ISIS first swept into Mosul in June, they proclaimed themselves the mainly Sunni city's savior from the Shiite-led Iraqi government in Baghdad. They held off from implementing their strict version of Islamic law, urging modesty for women but doing little to enforce it and generally leaving alone the Christian population that had not already fled.
The aim, it seemed, was to avoid alienating a Sunni community whose support they needed.
Now, the honeymoon is over. In recent weeks, they have purged the city of nearly its entire Christian population, moved to restrict women and begun the systematic destruction of city landmarks.
Nearly daily, the militants have been destroying some of the city's most famed sites.
On Thursday, they destroyed the Mosque of the prophet Younis — or Jonah, the prophet who in both the Bible and Koran was swallowed by a whale. The next day, it was the turn of the Mosque of Sheeth, or Seth, said to be the burial site of the third son of Adam and Eve. On Saturday, they reduced to rubble the Mosque of the prophet Jirjis.