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Saddam Hussein’s tomb has been almost completely destroyed in fighting near Tikrit, Iraq.

Footage filmed by the Associated Press shows that all that remains standing of the once-lavish mausoleum in the village of al-Awja are some pillars.

Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia militia are battling to drive Islamic State (ISIS) militants from Tikrit.

In 2014, the local Sunni population said they had removed the former Iraqi leader’s body and taken it to an unknown location.

The capture of the tomb came as fighting intensified north and south of Tikrit on March 15 as Iraqi security forces vowed to reach the city centre within 48 hours.

The footage shows the mausoleum, south of the city, reduced to concrete rubble.

Poster-sized pictures of Saddam Hussein that once covered the tomb have been replaced with Shia militia flags and pictures of militia leaders, including Iranian General Qassem Soleimani who advises the Shia militias.Saddam Hussein’s tomb almost destroyed in Tikrit fighting

There are suspicions among many in Iraq’s Sunni community that Saddam Hussein’s tomb was deliberately destroyed by the Shia militias.

AP said that its crew was embedded with the Iraqi military and may have been subject to reporting restrictions.

“This is one of the areas where ISIS militants massed the most because Saddam’s grave is here,” said Captain Yasser Numa, an official with the militias.

“The ISIS militants set an ambush for us by planting bombs around.”

ISIS said in August 2014 that the tomb had been completely destroyed but local officials denied this, saying it had been ransacked and suffered only minor damage.

Saddam Hussein, who was from Tikrit, was captured by US forces in 2003.

An Iraqi tribunal convicted him of crimes against humanity for the killings of Shia Muslims and Kurds and hanged him in 2006. Saddam Hussein’s body had been kept in the mausoleum since 2007.

The mausoleum featured a marble octagon with a bed of fresh flowers at the centre, covering the place where Saddam Hussein’s body was buried.

According to Iraqi media, loyalists removed Saddam Hussein’s remains last year amid fears that it would be disturbed in the fighting.

Tikrit was overrun by ISIS in June 2014 and several hundred militants are believed to be holding out there.

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Iraqi troops have retaken some districts around Tikrit in their fight to recapture the city from Islamic State (ISIS).

A force of about 30,000 soldiers and militia are said to be attacking on different fronts, backed by air strikes from Iraqi jets.

Tikrit, north of the capital Baghdad, fell to ISIS militants last June.

The troops had seized control of the two districts of al-Tin, near Tikrit university north-east of the city, and the district of al-Abeid, in the west.

Earlier, fighting was also reported in al-Dour, south-east of Tikrit, as well as in al-Alam, north of the city, and nearby Qadisiya.

There were few details of the operation but army and medical sources were quoted as saying that five soldiers and 11 militia fighters had been killed.

The Pentagon said that the US was not providing any air power in support of the operation.Iraq forces Tikrit

Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi declared the start of the operation late on March 1, as tens of thousands of troops and militia massed in the central town of Samarra.

Tikrit, in Salahuddin province, lies on the road to Mosul – Iraq’s second city which was also seized by ISIS last year.

Correspondents say the current operation is crucial to any Iraqi plans to retake Mosul.

Iraqi forces are being helped by Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Iranian and Iraqi media reported.

Since the ISIS advance across Iraq last summer, Gen. Qasem Soleimani has personally overseen the defense of Baghdad and helped to organize pro-Iranian Shia militia.

He has been pictured visiting the front lines north of the capital on several occasions.

Tikrit is the hometown of deposed leader Saddam Hussein and was seized last year by IS militants backed by anti-government Sunni allies loyal to Saddam’s banned Baath party.

Iraq is split between a Sunni Muslim minority, many of whom supported Saddam Hussein, and the Shia Muslim majority.

Since Saddam Hussein was toppled, Sunnis have felt increasingly marginalized by the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Shia militia has done much of the fighting against ISIS militants but have also been accused of killing scores of Sunni civilians in apparent revenge attacks.

ISIS militants hold several areas of Salahuddin, a predominantly Sunni Muslim province.

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Forty six Indian nurses, who were trapped in fighting engulfing parts of Iraq, have been freed, Indian authorities say.

The nurses have been handed over to Indian officials in the Kurdish city of Irbil and are due to be flown home on Saturday.

Forty six Indian nurses were trapped in fighting engulfing parts of Iraq

Forty six Indian nurses were trapped in fighting engulfing parts of Iraq

The nurses were working at a hospital in the northern city of Tikrit and had been stranded there for more than week.

Tikrit is among a number of towns and cities seized by jihadist-led Sunni rebels in recent weeks.

“All the 46 nurses in Iraq are safe,” chief minister of the southern Indian state of Kerala Oommen Chandy told a news conference on Friday, adding that they were to be transferred to Irbil airport.

The nurses, all from Kerala, are due to arrive in the southern city of Kochi on Saturday morning.

On Thursday, Indian officials said the nurses were “unharmed”, but had been moved out of Tikrit.

Indian media reports said they had been pressured into boarding buses and leaving the hospital by jihadist fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

There are few details about the exact circumstances of their release.

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Government forces are continuing an offensive to retake Iraq’s northern city of Tikrit from Sunni rebels.

Aircraft have struck at rebel positions and clashes have broken out in various parts of Tikrit, witnesses and officials have said.

Troops had reportedly pulled back to the nearby town of Dijla as Saturday’s initial offensive met stiff resistance.

The city of Tikrit was captured by Sunni rebels on June 11 as they swept across large parts of northern Iraq.

Government forces are continuing an offensive to retake Iraq’s northern city of Tikrit from Sunni rebels

Government forces are continuing an offensive to retake Iraq’s northern city of Tikrit from Sunni rebels

“The security forces are advancing from different areas,” Lt-Gen. Qassem Atta told journalists.

“There are ongoing clashes.”

Insurgents, led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), were reported to have shot down a helicopter and captured the pilot.

The witnesses said the Iraqi forces had been hampered in their bid to retake Tikrit by the large number of improvised explosive devices laid on the approaches to the city.

Iraq said on Sunday it had received the first batch of military jets ordered from Russia in order to help fight the militants.

The defense ministry said five Sukhoi aircraft would enter service in “three to four days”.

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ISIS insurgents in Iraq have seized the city of Tikrit, their second major gain after capturing Mosul on Tuesday, security officials say.

Tikrit, the hometown of former leader Saddam Hussein, lies 95 miles north of the capital Baghdad.

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki vowed to fight back against the jihadists and punish those in the security forces who fled offering little or no resistance.

The insurgents are from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

ISIS insurgents in Iraq have seized the city of Tikrit, their second major gain after capturing Mosul

ISIS insurgents in Iraq have seized the city of Tikrit, their second major gain after capturing Mosul (photo AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS, which is also known as ISIL, is an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

The Islamist group controls considerable territory in eastern Syria and western and central Iraq, in a campaign to set up a Sunni militant enclave straddling the border.

There were also reports on Wednesday of fighting further south, in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad.

Separately, at least 21 people were killed and 45 hurt by a suicide bomber at a Shia meeting in Baghdad, police said.

As many as 500,000 people fled Mosul after the militants attacked the city. The head of the Turkish mission in Mosul and almost 50 consulate staff are being held by the militants, Turkish officials say.

Turkey’s foreign minister warned there would be “harsh retaliation” if any of its citizens were harmed.

The insurgents moved quickly south, entering the town of Baiji late on Tuesday.

There were heavy clashes reported in Tikrit, with dozens of insurgents attacking security forces near the headquarters of the Salaheddin provincial government in the city centre.

AFP news agency quoted police and witnesses as saying there was fighting at the northern entrance to Samarra.

Earlier PM Nouri Maliki vowed to fight back against the militants. He has asked parliament to declare a state of emergency.

In a live TV address, he said a “conspiracy” had taken place in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.

Nouri Maliki said he did not want to apportion blame for who had ordered the security personnel “to retreat and cause chaos”.

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