Iraqi security forces report killing long-sought Saddam aide

Iraqi security forces on Friday killed Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, the highest-ranking member of the late Saddam Hussein’s regime to escape the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, Iraqi officials said.

A photo supposedly taken of the dead man by soldiers involved in the operation and distributed on Twitter closely resembled al Douri, including notable red hair and a red beard. But the final confirmation of his identity will come from DNA testing over the next few days, the Salahuddin provincial governor’s office told McClatchy.

A Kurdish security official who knew al Douri agreed the photo looked like the man he’d known, but he added that in light of past rumors of al Douri’s death in combat or from illness, DNA testing would be necessary to confirm his identity.

No official photo was released.

The Kurdish security official, who asked not to be identified to avoid tensions with officials in Baghdad over credit for the death, said that the man thought to be al Douri was traveling in a small convoy with about nine bodyguards in a hilly, rural area south of the city of Kirkuk and north of Tikrit when it was fired on. The official would not comment if the convoy was being tracked by air.

Iraqi security officials in Baghdad, speaking to local television news, claimed that Iraqi security forces ambushed the convoy and that at least three of the 10 men were wearing suicide vests that were detonated in the ensuing gunfight. Those details could not be confirmed independently.

Al Douri’s militant group, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, made no comment on the developments Friday. But the nearly defunct Iraqi Baath Party, Saddam’s political group, issued an online statement denying the death, which it described as a rumor.

Often rumored to have been killed or captured, al Douri formed the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order after the fall of Saddam’s regime to fight American forces in Iraq and oppose the Shiite-dominated government that replaced Saddam’s Sunni-led regime. He later aligned his forces with the Islamic State as the Islamist extremists overran much of northern and central Iraq in June 2014.

A government statement said that al Douri’s death represented a major blow to the military capabilities of the Islamic State, which has worked hard to absorb former military and intelligence officers from the Saddam regime despite at least a superficial difference in ideology between the former secular Baathists and the Islamist radicals.

Many analysts have credited the former military professionals for the training that has enabled the Islamic State’s victories over the past 18 months.

The exact relationship between al Douri’s organization and the Islamic State has been the subject of significant speculation, however, amid persistent rumors of rifts over governance and military strategy.

“The two groups initially coordinated, but it is clear the relationship was one whereby the Naqshbandi hoped to ride the wave of IS-spearheaded offensives to gain a slice of influence in the insurgent landscape,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, a specialist in Iraqi militant groups with the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. “But things very quickly turned sour as IS dominated all towns out of government control and arrested, killed or co-opted Naqshbandi members, prompting those who did not want to give allegiance to IS to flee.”

Tamimi said that al Douri initially seemed “delighted” by the Islamic State’s rapid advance across northern and central Iraq. But he soon became disillusioned with the Islamic State’s bloody rule.

“His last alleged speech clearly condemned IS conduct,” Tamimi said.

A longtime confidant and possible successor to Saddam, Douri was born in 1942 in the village of al Dour, which is next to Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. His prominent role in the regime earned him the designation of king of clubs in the deck of cards of wanted regime officials that U.S. occupation authorities issued after U.S. troops invaded Iraq. He was never caught.