For 12 years, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri has been on the run. When U.S. forces swept into Iraq in 2003, Douri’s face and signature red mustache was printed on the king of clubs, labeling him a high-value target in the military campaign to crush Saddam Hussein’s regime. He has repeatedly evaded capture despite an apparent ability to move around Iraq with ease, including as a leader of several insurgent movements — most recently allying with the Islamic State.
On Friday, Iraqi authorities reported that Douri is dead. If reports of his demise are true, it would mark a milestone in the post-Saddam era of Iraq.
Douri was the last living plotter in the 1968 coup that brought the Baathists to power in Iraq. Saddam’s right-hand man and onetime interior minister, Douri would become a scourge of the invaders, breathing life into Sunni discontent. When the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq last year, he sided with the hard-liners, helping them score an astounding series of victories capped by the seizure of Mosul.
The governor of Salahuddin province told the Associated Press that Douri was killed during an operation in the mountains east of Tikrit, where Iraqi forces and Shiite militiamen are working to consolidate gains after retaking the city from the Islamic State. Separately, Gen. Haider al-Basri told Iraqi state TV that Douri had been killed when troops opened fire on a convoy in which the rebel leader was traveling.
But the report of his death must also be taken with a grain of salt. Douri has been reported killed on multiple occasions, including once by his own Baath party, to only turn up later once more leading an insurgent movement. And in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday she could not confirm the reports.
Photographs circulating on social media Friday show the dead body of a man with a flaming red beard, Douri’s most unusual and distinguishing feature, which he usually cropped into a mustache. He had been perhaps best known in the public imagination as the king of clubs in the deck of most wanted Iraqi officials distributed before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Douri was accused of financing insurgent activity against U.S. troops.
In recent months, Douri and the militia movement that he leads, the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, also referred to by its Arabic initials, JRTN, has emerged as a powerful force amid the Islamic State’s territorial gains. When the group swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, seizing Mosul and several other major cities, it did so with the uneasy support of Douri and other Sunni rebel movements fed up with what they saw as the abusive, anti-Sunni leadership of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Douri’s group has its origins in the old Iraqi Baathist order and is mostly composed of former Iraqi military and intelligence personnel.
While they have made common cause with the hard-line Sunni fighters of the Islamic State, as an Iraqi nationalist group, JRTN has criticized the Islamic State’s treatment of the country’s minorities, including its violent assault on Iraqi Yazidis. Tensions between the two groups have erupted into open fighting between them. The JRTN appears content to work with the Islamic State as an ally in its effort to unseat the Shiite-dominated government, it appears unwilling to fall under the rule of a doctrinaire brand of Islamic law. A spokesman for JRTN last year called the Islamic State “barbarians.”
Douri’s death, if confirmed, would break a symbolic link between this band of old-guard rebels and the Hussein regime. Douri had been a trusted confidante of the former strongman and married off his daughter to Hussein’s sadistic son, Uday. But in a measure of his influence with the Iraqi leader, he was reportedly able to secure a concession that the marriage not be consummate and later secured a divorce for his daughter, according to a 2014 profile of Douri in the New Republic. Douri’s militia movement JRTN was formed after Hussein’s death by hanging at the hands of Shiite militiamen in late 2006.
If confirmed, Douri’s death will arguably strengthen the Islamic State’s position within the Iraqi rebel firmament. While a defeat for the broader Sunni uprising against the Iraqi central government, it will likely cement the Islamic State’s position as the country’s main rebel player.