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 has said.

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 said that Shi'ite militiamen broke into the grave site, tore down photographs of the former Iraqi leader and then set the area on fire.

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"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.