ABOVE: Iraqi armed forces supported by Iraqi federal police and Shiite militiamen launched a wide-scale attack against Islamic State militants in Fatha on Thursday
TORONTO – While Islamic State militants continue their rampage across northern Iraq, bulldozing and destroying ancient cultural sites, researchers around the world are following the horrifying deja vu.
For archaeologist Clemens Reichel, the destruction of ancient sites like Korsabad, Hatra, Nimrud and the Mosul Museum by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a painful revisitation after studying the catastrophic loss inflicted on Iraq’s cultural sites following the 2003 Iraq War.
“It’s on another scale that we haven’t seen before. [ISIS militants] are completely obliterating an ancient culture. ‘How do I feel?’ It’s a mixture of feeling between anger, frustration and resignation,” said Reichel, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology University of Toronto and curator for the ancient near east at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Reichel called the situation in Iraq a “cultural genocide” and said it’s undoing more than 150 years of archaeological excavation in the country.
Earlier this month, Iraqi government officials reported ISIS had razed the 3,000-year-old ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and bulldozed the 2,000-year-old site of Hatra, both designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Officials reported the Assyrian capital Khorsabad has also been targeted and partially destroyed by militants.
The obliteration of the ancient sites follows a video posted on Feb. 26 that shows Islamic State militants smashing ancient statues and artifacts with sledgehammers in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul. Irina Bokova, director-general of Paris-based UNESCO, called it “cultural cleansing” and a war crime the world must punish.
WATCH: ISIS destroys ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Northern Iraq
Reichel said for many people it can be hard to discuss the destruction of statues when people are being killed and in particularly brutal fashion at the hands of ISIS, but says the other side of a humanitarian crisis is the annihilation of a cultural identity.
“By destroying these physical monuments you are taking people’s identity away. And this is something the West doesn’t understand in part,” said Reichel who has spent more than 20 years working in Iraq and Syria. “People approach cultural heritage from this materialistic viewpoint that it is somehow a commodity; it’s something valuable in terms of finances. What they don’t see is that it shapes people’s identity.”
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this nightmare will end. Every day that ISIS is in power is a day too much. It needs to come to an end. They are committing pretty much every war crime that can be committed.”
The Islamic State group currently controls about a third of Iraq and Syria and has been campaigning to purge ancient relics they say promote idolatry that violates their interpretation of Islamic law.
Researchers say the full breadth of destruction at these ancient sites is still unknown and will require experts on the ground to fully investigate.
“We need someone on the ground to actually get there and take photographs,” McGuire Gibson, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, told Global News. “This is obviously very dangerous work so I don’t know if anyone is going to do it.”
Gibson, who has also studied the devastation of previous wars in Iraq, said the preservation of cultural property during this “unofficial” war against ISIS is difficult because the traditional rules of war don’t apply.
“The problem is that most of the regulations that govern cultural property and how we treat cultural property during war time relate to nation states,” he said. “They don’t relate to entities that rise up through insurrections. So a lot of the rules of war technically don’t even really apply.”
Following the Second World War, UNESCO adopted the “Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict,” which was designed to prevent the kind of cultural loss experienced by European countries at the hands of Axis powers.
“The U.S. army is trying to deal with this kind of thing but it’s a really fuzzy area. There is an obligation to protect cultural property, but as U.S. General Dempsey said, our priorities are otherwise.”
A combined force of Iraqi troops and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have begun a push to remove Islamic State fighters from Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, located about 130 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Canada has participated in U.S.-led coalition air strikes in Iraq and sent 69 special forces soldiers to train and advise Kurdish troops. The mission has led to one casualty so far when Sgt. Andrew Doiron was killed in a friendly fire incident with Kurdish fighters, the details of which have been disputed.
*With files from the Associated Press