The grave of Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein was destroyed during heavy clashes on Sunday between Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Iraqi forces in the late dictator's hometown of Tikrit, the Associated Press reported.
Nothing but columns which held up the roof of a once-lavish tomb were seen in AP footage taken from the village of Ouja, just south of Tikrit.
Fighting escalated in the north and south of the city as Iraqi security forces, with militias, vowed to reach the center of Tikrit within 38 hours.
Shiite militia flags and photographs of militia leaders now line the predominantly Sunni village as poster-sized pictures of Hussein - which once covered the mausoleum - were nowhere to be seen.
"This is one of the areas where IS [ISIS] militants massed the most because Saddam's grave is here," said Captain Yasser Nu'ma, an official with the Shiite militias, formerly known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. "The IS [ISIS] militants' set an ambush for us by planting bombs around" the tomb.
ISIS took control of Tikrit in June following a lightning offensive that saw Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, come under their control.
The militant group 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.
ISIS claimed in August that Saddam's 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 was reminiscent of the extravagant life he led until U.S. forces toppled him in 2003.
Iraqi media reported last year that Saddam's body was removed by loyalists amid fears that it would be disturbed in the fighting. The body's location is not known.
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.
Amnesty International last year said the militias wear military uniforms but operate outside any legal framework and without any official oversight, adding that they are not prosecuted for their crimes. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch echoed those concerns, calling on the Iraqi government to protect civilians in Tikrit and allow them to flee combat zones. Its statement noted "numerous atrocities" against Sunni civilians by pro-government militias and security forces.
Shiite militants are increasingly being accused of leveling the Sunni towns they capture from the ISIS group, making it impossible for residents to return. 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.
Local Sunni tribal fighters have formed uneasy alliances with the Iraqi army and Shiite militias in the battle for Tikrit, which Iraqi and U.S. officials believe is essential for defeating the Sunni militant group.
Yazan al-Jubouri, a Sunni from Tikrit fighting alongside the Shiite militias, said that the ISIS militants killed 16 of his relatives and kept his family living in horror.
"We want to take revenge on those IS [ISIS] militants who killed our children," he said.