MOSUL, Iraq: The antiquities museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul is in ruins, with exhibition halls housing piles of rubble and the basement filled with ankle-deep drifts of ash.
Associated Press reporters were granted rare access to the museum on Wednesday after Iraqi forces retook it from the Islamic State group earlier this week.
They saw the jagged remains of what appeared to have been an ancient Assyrian bull statue and fragments from cuneiform tablets. The museum once housed Mesopotamian artifacts dating back thousands of years.
IS captured Mosul in 2014 and released a video the following year showing fighters smashing artifacts in the museum with sledgehammers and power tools. The extremists view ancient artifacts as idols.
Iraqi officials at the time said most of what the militants destroyed were copies, as much of the museum's inventory had been moved to Baghdad for safe-keeping.
Federal Police Cpl. Abbas Muhammad said he was one of the first to enter the building after it was retaken from IS.
"Daesh came to Iraq to destroy our heritage because they don't have their own," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.
The territory IS overran in Syria and Iraq is home to some of the region's most important historical sites and monuments.
Over the past two and half years, the militants have systematically destroyed ancient palaces, temples and churches. They have even demolished some mosques, saying they were used to venerate saints, which IS considers a form of polytheism.
The extremist group is also believed to have looted ancient artifacts in order to sell them on the black market to finance its operations.
A handful of history books remained in the main entryway of the museum beside a bag of placards from old exhibits.
They describe flint objects found in Nineveh dating back to about 4,000 BC, copper oil lamps discovered in Ur dating back to 2,600 BC and Sumerian statues dating back to 2,050 BC.
"Mosul is the heart of Iraqi civilization," said Federal Police Maj. Muhammad al-Jabouri, a Mosul native from a nearby neighborhood.
"When I heard how Daesh destroyed this place," he said as his eyes filled with tears. "Death would have been a greater mercy for me."
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