The tomb of Iraq's late dictator, Saddam Hussein, has been virtually leveled in heavy clashes between militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Iraqi forces in a fight for control of the city of Tikrit, according to Associated Press.
Fighting reportedly intensified to the north and south of Saddam Hussein's hometown on Sunday as Iraqi security forces vowed to reach the center of Tikrit within 48 hours. An 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 mountain of concrete rubble. Instead, Shiite militia flags and photos of militia leaders mark the predominantly Sunni village, including that of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian general advising Iraqi Shiite militias on the battlefield.
The extremist Islamic State group has controlled Tikrit since June, when it waged its lightning offensive that saw Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, come under their control. The Islamic State was helped in its conquest of northern Iraq by Saddam loyalists, including military veterans, who appealed to Sunnis who felt victimized by Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government.
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 was reminiscent of the extravagant life he led until U.S. forces toppled him in 2003.
According to Iraqi media, Saddam's body was removed by loyalists to an unknown location because of the threat posed by ISIS.
Recapturing Tikrit, a Sunni bastion on the Tigris River, would pave the way for an assault on Mosul, which U.S. officials have said could come as soon as next month.
Concerns are mounting that Iraq's Shiite militias, of which an estimated 20,000 are fighting in Tikrit, will carry out revenge attacks on this and other areas that are home to predominantly Sunni residents.
Tikrit has already been heavily damaged in months of violence. A satellite image of Tikrit, released last month by the United Nations, observed that at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting, with at least 137 completely destroyed and 241 severely damaged.