The United Nations condemned as a "war crime" Friday the Islamic State group's bulldozing of the ancient city of Nimrud, the jihadists' latest demolition of Iraqi cultural treasures.
After rampaging through Mosul's museum with sledgehammers and torching its library last month, ISIS "bulldozed" the nearby ruins of Nimrud Thursday, the tourism and antiquities ministry said.
Antiquities officials said ISIS militants had moved trucks last week to the site, which overlooks the Tigris River, 30 kilometers (18 miles) southeast of their main hub of Mosul.
"Until now, we do not know to what extent it was destroyed," one official said.
Nimrud was the latest victim of what appears to be a systematic campaign by the jihadists to obliterate 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," Abdulamir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist from Stony Brook University in New York said of the propaganda film of the destruction that ISIS will likely release.
He said 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 pieces of gold jewelry, ornaments and precious stones discovered in 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 about 100 kilometers south of Mosul known for its beautifully preserved temples blending Hellenistic, Roman and Eastern influences.
Irina Bokova, the head of the UN's cultural body UNESCO, 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 Friday.
- 'Killing civilization' - UNESCO has called for tougher action to protect the many heritage sites in one of the cradles of civilization but little can be done in areas under jihadist control.
The destruction was met with condemnation and sadness on Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, a favorite haunt of Iraqi intellectuals.
"After they killed the human spirit, they began killing civilization," Ibrahim Dawood, a writer and poet, said of IS.
"A civilization considered the pride of Iraq and the world was erased in minutes," said Adel Abdullah, a health ministry employee.
ISIS attempts to justify the destruction 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 effect on IS.
"We have also traditionally called upon the peoples of the region to recognize 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."
ISIS 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 by Iran.
Baghdad launched a huge offensive Monday to retake the city of Tikrit, in what commanders have said was a stepping stone toward an even larger operation to free Mosul.
Since they swept through Iraq's Sunni heartland last June, ISIS militants have destroyed a long list of religious and heritage sites, including churches and Sunni shrines.
Most of Nimrud's priceless artifacts had 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.
"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 artifacts, which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism," said Bokova.
"At stake is the survival of the Iraqi culture and society."