Middle East

Iraq conflict: Saddam's tomb destroyed in Tikrit fighting

Media captionSaddam's tomb has been destroyed, but his body had already been removed, according to locals

The tomb of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been almost completely levelled in fighting near Tikrit.

Footage filmed by the AP news agency shows that all that remains standing of the once-lavish mausoleum in the village of al-Awja are some pillars.

Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia militia have been battling to drive Islamic State (IS) from Tikrit.

Operations were put on hold on Monday to minimise civilian and military casualties, Iraqi officials say.

The Iraqi interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, said IS fighters were confined to an area of the city centre.

Deputy Defence Minister Ibrahim al-Lami said more air support was needed, according to Reuters news agency, but he did not specify from whom. The US has so far not been involved in the operation.

Image caption The mausoleum in al-Awja has been reduced to a pile of rubble

The AP footage shows the mausoleum, south of the city, reduced to concrete rubble.

Poster-sized pictures of Saddam that once covered it have been replaced with Shia militia flags and pictures of militia leaders, including Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani, who advises the Shia militias.

Militia leaders said IS put up a strong fight for the village, and left many bombs and booby-traps behind, says BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir.

But there will be suspicions among many in Iraq's Sunni community that the tomb was deliberately destroyed by the Shia militias, he says.

Their huge involvement in this push into the sensitive Sunni heartland has raised fears of sectarian repercussions.

Sunni populations who have been displaced are fearful to return to areas now controlled by Shia militias eager to avenge IS massacres against their own community, our correspondent adds.

Last year, the local Sunni population said they had removed Saddam's body and taken it to an unknown location.

'Trap set'

AP said that its crew was embedded with the Iraqi military and may have been subject to reporting restrictions.

"This is one of the areas where IS militants massed the most because Saddam's grave is here," said Capt Yasser Numa, an official with the militias.

"The IS militants set an ambush for us by planting bombs around."

Image caption Saddam's grave, covered in flowers, was at the centre of the lavish mausoleum

IS said last August that the tomb had been completely destroyed but local officials denied this, saying it had been ransacked and suffered only minor damage.

Saddam Hussein, who was from Tikrit, was captured by US forces in 2003.

An Iraqi tribunal convicted him of crimes against humanity for the killings of Shia Muslims and Kurds and hanged him in 2006. His body had been kept in the mausoleum since 2007.

It featured a marble octagon with a bed of fresh flowers at the centre, covering the place where the body was buried.

According to Iraqi media, loyalists removed his remains last year amid fears that it would be disturbed in the fighting.

Tikrit was overrun by IS last June and several hundred militants are believed to be holding out there.

The pro-government force ranged against them includes about 3,000 Iraqi troops with 20,000 Shia militiamen and a much smaller force of Sunni tribesmen.

Iraqi officials consider the city's recapture as a vital stepping stone to other IS-held territory, including Mosul - the country's second largest city.