Saddam Hussein's tomb has been razed as pro-government forces battle to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit from Islamic State (IS) militants, but the offensive is now on hold to allow civilians to escape the fighting.
The deceased former dictator's mausoleum in his birthplace of Ouja, just south of Tikrit, is seen almost completely destroyed in an Associated Press video published on Sunday. Its opulent marble interior is now buried under shattered concrete and only some bent support columns still stand amid the rubble. Shia militia members have replaced posters of Hussein with flags and portraits of commanders, including Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who is advising the irregulars, AP said.
Hussein's remains were not in the tomb, having been moved to an unknown location by supporters some months previously for fear that they would be damaged in fighting. He was overthrown and captured in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, then hanged in 2006 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi special tribunal.
Sunday saw heavy clashes both north and south of Tikrit as Iraqi government troops and security forces alongside Shia militias and Sunni tribes tried to push into the city center. However, the operation has been temporarily paused, Iraqi Interior Ministry Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban announced on Monday. Ghabban said the remaining IS fighters had been confined to a small central area surrounded by IED-rigged buildings and that the assault had slowed to avoid further damage to the city, allow civilians to flee and minimize casualties among the attacking forces.
Majority Sunni Tikrit is around 100 miles north of Baghdad and was seized by IS in June 2014 as the group swept across the north of the country in a shock offensive. IS was later joined by some Hussein loyalists and local Sunnis in the area who resented mistreatment from Iraq's mainly Shia rulers in Baghdad.
Government forces have made several unsuccessful attempts to retake the city since, but this is the largest yet and comes as IS is suffering from a string of defeats elsewhere in recent months, including the nearby oil refinery town of Baiji.
A 30,000-strong mixed force launched the assault on March 2 and commanders from regional Shia powerhouse Iran have also taken a leading role in the operation. So far the attackers have advanced from the north and south of Tikrit, encircling the town, but progress has been slow as the vastly outnumbered IS fighters resort to guerrilla tactics, such as booby-traps and snipers.
The US has been notably absent from the offensive, despite its attack jets playing a leading role in bombing IS elsewhere in the country. Iraqi officials said on Monday, however, that they may need further airstrikes to dislodge the jihadists from Tikrit. "We need air support from any force that can work with us against IS," Deputy Minister of Defense Ibrahim al-Ilami told Reuters, although he did not specify whether this referred to the US-led coalition or Iran. Raid Jubbouri, a spokesman for the prime minister, said Iraq would "welcome air support for all our campaigns against IS."
If Tikrit is retaken, it would be both a propaganda and tactical victory for Iraqi forces and help pave the way for an attempt to retake the country's second city of Mosul, which was also seized by Islamic State in June.
The US has described Iranian involvement in the offensive as "positive," but it has also raised concerns about the risk of increased sectarian tensions as a result.
IS kidnapped then executed more than 1,000 predominantly Shia recruits from the Camp Speicher military base close to Tikrit during its June 2014 offensive. Shia militias vowed revenge and often accuse local Sunni tribes of involvement in the killings.
Hadi al-Ameri, transport minister and head of the Badr Organization — an armed political movement closely associated with Iran — made the link explicit in the initial stages of the assault when he said Tikrit's residents should leave their homes to allow pro-government forces to "wrap up the battle of the revenge for Speicher."
Local Sunnis may suspect that Hussein's tomb was destroyed by Shia militias. But a commander told AP that IS had rigged it with explosives as a trap. "This is one of the areas where IS militants massed the most because Saddam's grave is here," Captain Yasser Nu'ma said. "The IS militants' set an ambush for us by planting bombs around" the tomb.
Shia militias have played a major part in the Iraqi fight against IS, filling the gaps after the spectacular collapse of a significant part of the regular armed forces during IS's June offensive. They are now more powerful and influential than ever and lawmakers have allowed them to boost their strength and numbers. In some cases this seems to have been accompanied by a return to the campaigns of kidnappings and killings last seen during the brutal sectarian violence that almost tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007.
Rights groups have said the militias operate outside the law with little or no accountability and have committed atrocities and war crimes. Authorities, however, appear to have neither the will, nor the ability, to reign them in.
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Main image: An Iraqi soldier inspects the damage to Saddam Hussein's tomb in Tikrit.