OUJA, Iraq — The tomb of Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein was virtually leveled in heavy clashes between militants from the Islamic State group and Iraqi security forces in a fight for control of the city of Tikrit.
Fighting intensified to the north and south of Saddam Hussein's hometown Sunday as Iraqi security forces vowed to reach the center of Tikrit within 48 hours. Associated Press video from the village of Ouja, just south of Tikrit, shows all that remains of Hussein's once-lavish tomb are the support columns that held up the roof.
Poster-sized pictures of the late Sunni dictator, which once covered the mausoleum, are now nowhere to be seen amid the mountains of concrete rubble. Instead, Shiite militia flags and photos of militia leaders mark the predominantly Sunni village, including that of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian general advising Iraqi Shiite militias on the battlefield.
"This is one of the areas where IS militants massed up the most because Saddam's grace is here," said Captain Yasser Nu'ma, an official with the Shiite militias, formerly known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. "The IS militants' set an ambush for us by planting bombs around the palace."
The extremist Islamic State group has controlled Tikrit since June, when it waged its lightening offensive that saw Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, come under their control. The group claimed in August that the tomb had been completely destroyed, but local officials said it was just ransacked and burned, but suffered only minor damage.
Saddam's body has been kept in the mausoleum in his birthplace, Ouja, since 2007. The complex featured a marble octagon at the center of which a bed of fresh flowers covered the place where his body was buried. The extravagant chandelier at its center stood reminiscent of the extravagant life Hussein led, until U.S. forces toppled him in 2003.
Iraqi media reported last year that the body was removed by loyalists amid fears that it would be disturbed in the fighting.