With their control of Mosul slipping away, Islamic State militants decided to send a message of defiance: They blew up the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret.
The mosque, destroyed Wednesday night, would have been a symbolic prize in the fight for Iraq's second-largest city. It was from a pulpit in that mosque that the extremists' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate in the lands they had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.
According to Iraqi officials, the destruction of the landmarks indicated that IS defenses are crumbling and the campaign to retake Mosul—launched more than eight months ago—is in its final stages.
"They knew that the battle had been decided in favor of the Iraqi forces and they knew that we were going to enter the mosque in only a few hours," said Iraqi special forces Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, adding that his troops were only 50 meters (yards) from the mosque site.
"That's why they exploded it," he said.