A longtime leader of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, who was a former deputy of Saddam Hussein, was reportedly killed near the home town of the late dictator early on Friday.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the red-headed former army commander has been a constant in Iraq’s brutal recent history.
A regime stalwart, he helped bring Saddam to power in a 1968 coup, was architect of the campaign that suppressed Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons in the 1980s, was a thorn in the side of the US occupation and most recently joined forces with jihadi militants to fight the Shia-led government.
His death, if confirmed, would be a symbolic victory for the coalition of US-backed Iraqi armed forces and volunteer militias seeking to turn back the tide against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) as it struggles to halt the jihadis’ advance to the west of Baghdad.
Douri was labelled the “King of clubs” on a list of former regime loyalists sought by security forces after the 2003 US invation of Iraq. A $10m bounty was placed on his head.
Photos circulating online on Friday showed the corpse of a red-bearded man bearing a strong resemblance to the 72-year-old, who has long been seen as leader of the armed uprising that fought US troops and waged war against Shia-led governments after the US occupation. The Iraqi authorities were carrying out DNA tests to confirm his identity.
Born near Saddam’s home town, Douri was a staunch ally of the dictator. He served as Iraq’s vice-president and succeeded Saddam as head of the Ba'ath party after the latter’s execution in 2006.
Douri was thought to be leader of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, known widely by its Arabic acronym JRTN, a Sufi-Islam-influenced militant group that had joined forces with Isis as it invaded northern and northwestern Iraq last year.
But his death could strengthen Isis, weakening nationalist Iraqi Sunni insurgent factions and favouring Islamists sharing the jihadis’ aim of establishing a modern-day caliphate. Douri spoke out repeatedly against Isis’s excesses and tensions had erupted between the two camps almost immediately after the collapse of Baghdad’s rule in northern Iraq in June.
“His death, if confirmed, wouldn’t mean anything for Iraq’s security because Douri and his contingent grew very irrelevant for IS [Isis] control of areas,” said Aymenn Tamimi, a researcher specialising in Iraqi insurgent groups at Herzliya University.
“There was initially co-ordination. But IS didn’t tolerate JRTN. They very quickly arrested and killed and co-opted them. JRTN as an operational force wasn’t doing much.”
Brigadier General Haider al Basri, commander of the 51st Brigade of the Iraqi army, said in an interview with Iraqi state television that Douri was killed in a gunfight early on Friday morning in the Hamrin mountains to the east of Tikrit.
“[Douri] was shot,” Brig Gen Basri told state television. “Thank God his wounds were severe. The criminal was killed on the spot along with his nine guards.”
Hours after the reported killing, a suicide bomber targeted a café near the site of the US consulate in the crowded, mostly Christian district of Ankawa in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, killing at least three and wounding five. Isis later claimed responsibility for the attack, according to jihadist monitoring group Site. The bombing took place in the three-province Kurdistan region largely considered a haven.
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