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Militant attack on Saddam Hussein's hometown damages his tomb

BAGHDAD - The tomb of Iraq's deceased dictator Saddam Hussein was damaged in clashes between militants from the Islamic State radical group and government soldiers in his hometown, according to local officials Tuesday.

The tomb only suffered minor damage in the battles according to a local official in the town of Ouja, who spoke on condition of anonymity for his own safety, and he dismissed a statement by the Islamists posted on a jihadi website that said it had been totally destroyed.

Amateur video which cannot be independently verified has emerged showing the huge portraits of Saddam smashed at the site and flowerbeds wrecked. The deposed Iraqi leader was executed at the end of 2006 and his supporters built him lavish tomb.

Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the U.S. military pulled out of the country in 2011, as radical Islamist militants have seized large swaths of the north and west of the country in co-operation with local Sunnis who have long distrusted the Shiite dominated government.

Many of the Islamists' Sunni allies, however, revere Saddam and the damage to the tomb could deepen splits in the anti-government alliance.

Iraq's government has been struggling to unite to confront the threat to north but in a sign of its lingering divisions, parliament postponed a discussion over who would be the next prime minister because the dominant Shiite parties can still not agree on a candidate.

Meanwhile, a lawmaker from the Yazidi minority group made an impassioned plea in parliament to save her people who have been fleeing persecution from the militants in the north.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's State of Law bloc won the most votes in elections in April, but lawmakers still cannot agree on whether State of Law or the larger coalition it is part of should put forward the nominee for the country's top political office, Kurdish lawmaker Perwan Muslih told The Associated Press. The discussion over the new prime minister is now set for Thursday, she said.

Al-Maliki has vowed to stand for a third four-year term as prime minister, but many of his critics have called for his removal, accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The other parties in the National Iraqi Alliance coalition oppose al-Maliki.

The Islamic State captured the northern towns of Sinjar and Zumar on Saturday, and issued an ultimatum to tens of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community to convert to Islam, pay a religious fine, flee their homes or face death. Yazidis follow an ancient religion with links to Zoroastrianism. At least 40 children from those displaced from Sinjar were killed in the violence, UNICEF said Tuesday.

Yazidi lawmaker Vian Dakheel issued a teary-eyed plea for help during discussions over the country's spiraling refugee crisis before fainting. "In the name of humanity, I call upon all of you to save us! Save us!" she shouted into a microphone. "'Our families have been slaughtered as all other Iraqis were massacred."

UNICEF reported Tuesday that more than 25,000 children are now stranded in mountains surrounding Sinjar and are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, including drinking water and sanitation services.

Last month, the U.N. said more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence since June, bringing the total this year to 1.4 million, including more than 230,000 Syrian refugees. That does not include refugees from Sinjar and other cities taken over in recent days.

Since the Islamic State group and its local allies captured Mosul in June, it has driven out ethnic and religious minorities and attacked mosques and shrines it says contradicted its strict interpretation of Islam.

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Associated Press reporter Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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