By Ahmed Rasheed and Isra' al-Rubei'i
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Executed former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Sunni tribal allies moved his body from a family plot eight months ago, fearful that Shi'ite militias would harm it, a tribal leader told Reuters on Wednesday.
The caution paid off for Saddam's supporters and perhaps Iraq, where tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites would certainly explode into even more violence if any harm is done to the corpse of a man who still commands the respect of his sect.
A leader from Saddam's Albu Nasir tribe and a police official told Reuters that Shi'ite militiamen broke into the grave site, tore down photographs of the former Iraqi leader and then set the area on fire.
"We had moved the body eight months ago to a safer place. We were afraid something would happen to him. Our fears proved true," said the tribal leader who asked not to be named."There were four of us that took up this mission. We could not move the bodies of Saddam's sons. We are afraid someone will desecrate those graves."
The tribal chief would not give details on where Saddam's body was taken. "We moved him to a place far from the hands of his enemies," he said. "Isn't it enough for them that they killed him once. Now they are afraid of his body."
Saddam was hanged in 2006 after being convicted of crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shi'ite villagers after a failed assassination bid in 1982.
He was buried in his birthplace of Awja, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, prompting an outpouring of grief from fellow Sunni Arabs who dominated the country's Shi'ite majority under his rule.
Shi'ite officials taunted him as he stood on the gallows, defiant until his last breath.
"A militia force entered Saddam's tombsite, destroyed everything in sight and set it on fire. Until now they are surrounding the tombsites," said a police captain from the operations room in the nearby city of Sammara.
The tribal chief confirmed that account. "Shi'ite militia broke into the tomb, smashed everything inside, including photographs of Saddam Hussein."
A leader of a Shi'ite militia who is based near the area confirmed that militias set fire to the grave.
Shi'ite militias are positioned near Saddam's gravesite to fight the Islamic State, the Sunni militants who swept through northern Iraq in June and declared a caliphate.
Saddam was buried in the dead of the night beside his sons.
The tribal leader said he and other Sunnis were looking into reports that militias had desecrated the graves of Uday and Qusay, who were killed by U.S. troops in 2003 six months before their father was captured, and were despised by Shi'ites.
Saddam Hussein's grave, in a family plot, was dug into the floor of an octagonal, domed building he had built in the 1980s for religious festivals.
The government at the time had said Saddam's body might lie in a secret grave for fear the site could become a shrine and focal point for Baathist rebels. More than 70 people were killed in car bomb attacks on Shi'ite neighborhoods after Saddam's execution.
(Writing by Michael Georgy, editing by Janet McBride)