Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, soldier and politician who served as Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man – obituary

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Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri at a military parade in Mosul in 2003 - Awad Awad/AFP via Getty Images
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri at a military parade in Mosul in 2003 - Awad Awad/AFP via Getty Images

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, whose death aged 78 was announced in Iraq, was for nearly quarter of a century Saddam Hussein’s second-in-command. After the toppling of the dictator in 2003, he continued to champion the Ba’athist cause, first against the occupying American-led forces, then against the growing influence of Iran in the governance of Iraq.

As a former field marshal and vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, he was high on the list of people wanted dead or alive by the coalition. In the pack of playing cards issued by American intelligence agencies to identify the most notorious members of the old regime, he figured as the King of Clubs, with Uday, Saddam’s elder son, as the suit’s ace. A price of $10 million was put on his head.

Yet such were al-Douri’s powers of evasion that he remained one of a handful of that marked elite who was neither killed nor captured. He was reported to be suffering from leukaemia and more than once was declared dead, only to pop up again in audio and video messages.

Al-Douri at a military parade in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein in 2000 - Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images
Al-Douri at a military parade in Baghdad with Saddam Hussein in 2000 - Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Among Saddam’s dark henchmen he stood out for his red hair and moustache and his freckles, colouring which earned him the sobriquet “red devil”. As a leading soldier and politician in the Ba’athist hierarchy he was deeply implicated in its oppressive campaigns, whether conducted on ethnic or confessional grounds.

Among the most notorious were the mass killing of Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War, culminating in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988, and the crushing of the rebelling marsh Arabs, most of whom were Shia, in southern Iraq in 1991.

Al-Douri was also involved in the invasion of Iran in 1980 and the annexing of Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province 10 years later. Among the actions of the second campaign was the Battle of Khafji, in which coalition forces expelled Iraqi soldiers from the Saudi Arabian town of that name.

In 1993 al-Douri was put in charge of the Return to Faith Campaign, which gave more freedom to Sunni Muslims, who account for about one third of the population, while severely restricting that of the Shia majority. In 1998 he escaped an assassination attempt in the central Iraqi city of Karbala, one of Shia Islam’s most holy sites.

One of the playing cards issued by the US to aid indentification of senior Iraqi figures during the allied invasion of Iraq - DoD/AFP via Getty Images
One of the playing cards issued by the US to aid indentification of senior Iraqi figures during the allied invasion of Iraq - DoD/AFP via Getty Images

During the American-led invasion in 2003 he commanded Iraqi forces in the north of the country.

On the run after the toppling of Saddam, al-Douri took over as leader of the by-now banned Iraqi Ba’ath Party in 2007. He also led the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandi Order, a Sufi-inspired organisation, in an insurgency first against occupying US forces, then against the government in Baghdad after most of the Americans had withdrawn by the end of 2011.

Al-Douri posed no threat to his fellow Tikriti, Saddam, which explains his long tenure of high office under a regime notorious for purges. His daughter Suha was briefly married to the dictator’s elder son, Uday. More remarkable was his diehard defence of the Ba’athist cause once Saddam was gone.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was born on July 1 1942, the son of a farmer, in the town of ad-Dawr, near Tikrit. From a humble job selling blocks of ice he acquired the nickname of “Iceman”. His early involvement in revolutionary politics led to his participation, along with Saddam, in the bloodless coup of July 1968 which returned the Ba’athists to power. As interior minister he took on the curbing of their political rivals, the Iraqi Communist Party being his main target.

Al-Douri in 2003 - Heathcliff O'Malley
Al-Douri in 2003 - Heathcliff O'Malley

From 1977-81 he commanded the 2nd infantry division, based in Kirkuk.

In the 2003 emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Doha, just before the invasion of Iraq, al-Douri called the neighbouring Gulf states traitors for cooperating with the United States and Israel. In response to a protest by the Kuwaiti representative, al-Douri replied: “Shut up, sit down, you small American agent, you monkey.”

On the run after Saddam’s overthrow, al-Douri relied on support from President Hafez al-Assad and the Syrian Ba’ath Party. Within Iraq he operated through the Damascus-based National Command of the Islamic Resistance, working with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), which took over Mosul and a large swathe of western and north-western parts of the country in 2014.

He warned against the growing influence of Shia sectarian groups linked to Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-14, and backed by Iran. Tehran’s deepening involvement in Syria as well as Iraq led to the cooling of his relations with the Assad government.

Saddam Hussein and al-Douri inspect an artwork depicting the Muslim shrine in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock - Iraq News Agency/AFP via Getty Images
Saddam Hussein and al-Douri inspect an artwork depicting the Muslim shrine in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock - Iraq News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Al-Douri was reported killed in 2015 in an operation in Saladin governorate, whose capital is Tikrit. He resurfaced in 2016, and the following year bewailed the spread of Iranian influence over both the Iraqi and Syrian governments.

In 2018 he criticised the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, for what he claimed was the destruction of many cities in the successful campaign against Isis. That same year Raghad, Saddam’s daughter, was reported to have sent her condolences to the al-Douri family after the former field marshal had allegedly died in a Tunisian hospital.

But in 2019 he appeared in a video message, apologising for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

On October 26 2020 his death was announced by what remains of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, a website affiliated to it declaring: “Today he dismounted his horse, the knight of the Ba’ath and the Iraqi national resistance”. Raghad was again said to have sent her condolences.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, born July 1 1942, died October 26 2020