Salah Al-Din and Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The tomb of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was left all but destroyed on Sunday as Iraqi forces continued an offensive to recapture his hometown Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The tomb, which lies north of Tikrit at the village of Al-Awja, was reduced to rubble as Iraqi forces and Shi’ite volunteer militias, known as the Popular Mobilization forces, rolled into the area and fighting intensified.
According to the Associated Press, pictures of the late president which stood atop the tomb were removed and replaced with flags of the Shi’ite militias and pictures of Shi’ite leaders as well as those of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
Suleimani heads the Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is believed to be taking part in the operation and others across Iraq against ISIS.
Locals said the bodies buried at the site, which in addition to Saddam’s include those of his two sons Uday and Qusay and his grandson Mustafa, were previously moved by other family members and Saddam supporters over fears ISIS fighters would seek to desecrate the tomb.
“According to the information I have, the bodies were moved around a year ago to an unknown location inside Iraq,” Sheikh Abdul Wahab Al-Salem, the head of one of the most prominent tribes in Tikrit, told Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday.
Some reports suggested the bodies were moved outside Iraq to Jordan, but Salem denied this.
Other locals said members of the Popular Mobilization forces had attempted over two months ago to enter the area and burn down the tomb, but left after finding no evidence of the bodies.
The Shi’ite militias, who are on the frontline in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, have been accused of carrying out atrocities against Sunni civilians residing in battle zones throughout the country.
Their involvement in the Tikrit offensive, as well as reports of Iranian involvement, are threatening to derail the operation, according to one Iraqi military analyst.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday, Ahmed Al-Shuraiqi said the operation, now in its fifth day, is being delayed due to US and Turkish pressure over the involvement of Iran.
He said both Washington and Ankara want the Iranian forces to leave the area before the Iraqi military fully recaptures the city.
Iraqi forces however have said they are now close to retaking Tikrit from ISIS, and Interior Minister Mohamed Al-Ghabban told reporters on Monday ISIS had now “lost the battle” for the city.
Contrary to Shuraiqi’s comments he said Iraqi forces were delaying taking the city in order to allow civilians to leave before the forces entered for the final stretch of the battle.
Tikrit was seized by ISIS forces last June in a lightning advance following their capture of Iraq’s second city Mosul.
Iraqi military officials have said the Tikrit offensive, if successful, should pave the way for an operation to retake Mosul from ISIS.
Rafid Al-Jabouri, the official spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said on Monday Iraq was in need of further airstrikes from the international anti-ISIS coalition led by the US “for all current operations,” in order for them to be successful.
An informed source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi would be heading to Washington in April just before the start of the Mosul offensive in order to discuss the operation, which will see the US playing a “decisive role.”
Hamza Mustafa contributed additional reporting from Baghdad.