Baghdad - The tomb of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been almost completely levelled in fighting near Tikrit, BBC reported Monday.
Footage filmed by an American news agency 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 militia have been battling to drive Islamic State (IS) from Tikrit.
Operations were put on hold on Monday to minimise civilian and military casualties, Iraqi officials say. The Iraqi interior minister, Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, said IS fighters were confined to an area of the city centre.
Deputy Defence Minister Ibrahim al-Lami said more air support was needed, according to Reuters news agency, but he did not specify from whom. The US has so far not been involved in the operation. The AP footage shows the mausoleum, south of the city, reduced to concrete rubble.
Poster-sized pictures of Saddam that once covered it have been replaced with militia flags and pictures of militia leaders, including Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani, who advises the militias.
Militia leaders said IS put up a strong fight for the village, and left many bombs and booby-traps behind, says BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir.
But there will be suspicions among many in Iraq’s minority that the tomb was deliberately destroyed by the militias, he says. Their huge involvement in this push into the sensitive heartland has raised fears of sectarian repercussions.  Reuters adds: A remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry that President Bashar al-Assad should be included in negotiations on a Syrian political transition provoked alarm and dismay on Monday among commentators close to Gulf Arab governments opposed to his rule.
Saudi Arabia, the top oil exporter and main Arab ally of the United States, has long feared that the administration of President Barack Obamalacks the resolve to tackle Assad and that it is instead focusing on a nuclear deal with the Syrian leader’s main supporter Iran.
Although there was no immediate official comment from Riyadh, Saudi analysts with connections to the ruling family and conservative Muslim clerics quickly voiced concern about Kerry’s remarks.
“Bashar has no legitimacy after killing his people and driving 11 million out of their houses. How can you sit down and talk to him and keep him in power? It’s a big joke for us,” said Abdulaziz al-Sager, head of the Gulf Research Centre based in Jeddah and Geneva.
“We have to negotiate in the end,” Kerry said. “We’ve always been willing to negotiate in the context of the Geneva I process,” he added, referring to a 2012 conference which called for a negotiated transition to end the conflict. One major US ally appeared to differ. France said it was sticking to its opposition to talks with Assad, saying these had to include Syrian opposition members and elements of the exiting regime - but not Assad - to pave the way to a unity government.
Other Gulf countries, which like Saudi Arabia have backed Syrian rebels against Assad, worried about Kerry’s remarks.
“The fact that Assad is still in the picture is something we have lived with and accepted as an interim arrangement. If Mr. Kerry was talking about this same interim arrangement - one year or two years until negotiations reach some fruit - we understand,” said Sami al-Faraj, a Kuwaiti adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council that comprises Gulf Arab states. “But if he means that even after negotiations Assad would stay on, that is unacceptable.”
AFP adds: Turkey on Monday slammed US Secretary of State John Kerry for suggesting negotiations would have to be opened with President Bashar al-Assad to end the conflict in Syria.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the state-run Anatolia news agency that all Syria’s current problems, on the fourth anniversary of the start of the conflict in March 2011, were caused by the Assad regime. “What is there to be negotiated with Assad?” Cavusoglu was quoted as saying at the end of his visit to Cambodia.
“You are going to have what negotiations with a regime that has killed over 200,000 people and has used chemical weapons?” he asked.  “Up until now, what result has been reached (with the regime) through negotiations?” he added. He said all parties needed to work for a political “transformation” in Syria.
Meanwhile, a Chechen woman living in the Netherlands has taken her two young children against their father’s will to join the Islamic State group in Syria, in what is believed to be the first such case, prosecutors said on Monday. The unnamed 32-year-old refugee flew with her children, a boy aged eight and a girl aged seven, from Charleroi in Belgium to Athens in November, possibly using false passports after their Dutch father warned police of their imminent departure.
“She is most likely in Syria now. We are probing a kidnapping case,” public prosecution spokeswoman Elsbeth Kleibeuker told AFP, adding that an international detention request had been issued for them.
The Chechen woman and her children, who are Dutch nationals, were photographed as she withdrew cash from a cash machine in Istanbul in mid-December, the Dutch Limburger newspaper reported on Monday.