US F15-E jets in northern Iraq (file)
US F15-E jets in northern Iraq (file)Reuters

The US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group must try to protect archaeological sites being destroyed by the jihadists, Iraq's tourism and antiquities minister said Sunday.

ISIS recently smashed priceless artifacts at the Mosul museum, then bulldozed the city of Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century BC.

The jihadists may now have turned their attention to the extremely well preserved fortress city Hatra, which is over 2,000 years old and a UNESCO world heritage site, with the United Nations condemning its reported "destruction."

"The sky is not in the hands of the Iraqis, the sky is not in our hands. Therefore, the international community must move with the means it has," Adel Fahad al-Shershab told AFP in Baghdad.

"We request aerial support," Shershab said.

Asked specifically if he wanted coalition strikes to protect archaeological sites, he responded: "What I request from the international community and the international coalition is to carry out air strikes against terrorism wherever it is found."

The attacks on Iraq's archaeological heritage took place in ISIS-held areas in the northern province of Nineveh, where Iraq does not have security forces that are able to respond on the ground.

But targeting terrorists destroying archaeological sites would be a departure for the coalition, which is carrying out strikes aimed at weakening ISIS military capabilities in Iraq and neighboring Syria.

"The site of Hatra is a site in the desert where it is possible to see any infiltration" from the air, Shershab said of the ancient city, which features a unique blend of eastern and western architecture.

"It was expected that they (ISIS) would destroy it," he said.

But it remains unclear whether large-scale destruction was carried out at Hatra, whose thick walls and large buildings withstood two Roman invasions in the 2nd century AD.

Shershab said his ministry had not been able to officially confirm what had happened because the area is held by ISIS.

The jihadists spearheaded a sweeping offensive last June that overran large areas north and west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition and Iran are battling to push them back.

ISIS tries to justify the destruction of antiquities by saying they are idolatrous, but experts say the group traffics in them to fund its self-proclaimed "caliphate" and destroys only those pieces that are too bulky to be smuggled.

Shershab echoed the point on Sunday: "They say 'it is haram' (forbidden by Islam). At the same time they are selling (artifacts) and benefiting financially."

The timing of the attacks suggests they are more for propaganda purposes than a matter of religious conviction, as the terrorists have controlled the areas where the sites are located for close to nine months.