Low resolution image displaying alleged destruction of Saddam Hussein’s father’s tomb in Tikrit, Iraq (image via Al Watan/Twitter)

A “security source in Salahuddin Province” informed Iraqi newspaper Kitabat that “Daash” — the Arabic-language acronym for the Islamic State — “[had] blow[n] up the tomb of the father of Saddam in Tikrit.” Allegedly, “improvised explosive devices were placed inside and around” the tomb of Hussein al-Majid and detonated late at night on November 8, “resulting in [its] total collapse.” Al Sharq relayed other news agencies’ reports that the attack had “turned it to rubble” (حولوه إلى ركام). However, reverse image searches reveal that apparent photographic evidence has been lifted from old reports of violence against that and other historic sites in Tikrit.

In the midst of parallel tides of violence and propaganda, it has been difficult to investigate and verify or falsify claims surrounding destruction. Conflict journalist Aris Roussinos has had to spell out one of the obvious problems: “It’s essentially impossible to go to IS areas because they capture and murder journalists.” It is similarly dangerous for citizens to report from within IS areas. This case has been no different.

Another, recurrent, problem happened again here: Kitabat took its illustrations, originally photographed and/or published by Aljareda, from a report of an attack on the tomb-mosque on February 28, 2006. As Tikrit police told Xinhua news agency on the day of the 2006 attack, which happened just before a resumption of Saddam Hussein and other Ba’athist officials’ trial for crimes against humanity, “explosive charges were planted around the small mosque shrine over the grave of Saddam’s father in Tikrit cemetery.” Making matters more difficult, Kitabat and other links are now seemingly broken.

Hyperallergic has been following local reports for further information in the intervening weeks, but none has emerged. So far, Kitabat has circulated the untouched comparison photos from the 2006 attack, and al Watan Qatar and the Young Journalists Club of Iran have shared cropped versions of the same double image, which removed the copyright attribution. Al Watan and the Young Journalists Club appear to have found their illustration independently, though, seemingly by copying it from Observer M.E.‘s report of an attack on November 19, 2012, in which the image from 2006 was first published cropped.

Al Shahid Al Mustakel, meanwhile, used a photograph — from Al-Sumaria News via Al Arabiya — of the scattered remains of the Shrine of Arbaeen Wali for forty ancient martyrs, which was blown up on or around September 24.

Nonetheless, albeit under the mistakenly summarised headline that “Army liberates half of Baiji town and blow up the tomb of Saddam’s father in Tikrit,” the story was also reported to Shafaq News. Local journalist Khaled Ajaj al-Tikriti said that “the terrorists blew up the tomb of Saddam’s father.” So far, it is only possible to say that there is not yet any material evidence for the site’s destruction. According to Salaheddine provincial council chairman Ahmed al-Karim, it is only “a matter of time” before Tikrit is liberated, whereupon the human cost of IS occupation will be learned, including any loss of cultural property.

Though the tomb is ideologically unacceptable to the Islamic State, it is also respected by the former Ba’athist army leaders who are apparently key to IS’s military council. Since IS has held back from attacking the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, which is an exclave of Turkey in Syria and which would draw the Turkish Armed Forces into the war against IS, it might be expected to display similarly strategic caution towards Saddam Hussein’s father’s tomb.

If it has destroyed the tomb, that may indicate that its Ba’athist elements have been subjugated or are considered surplus to requirements. Otherwise, the demolition may have been a calculated risk. In the face of increasingly successful resistance to its onslaught and increasingly effective support for that resistance, the Islamic State may have considered the destruction of a prominent historic site necessary to its propaganda war.

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Sam Hardy

Sam Hardy is an archaeologist who researches the illicit trade in antiquities, the destruction of cultural property, and cultural heritage labour at times of crisis and conflict. He teaches in Rome and...