BAGHDAD — He was the last member of Saddam Hussein’s inner circle still on the run, depicted with his distinctive red moustache as the “king of clubs” on the U.S. military’s deck of cards of most-wanted Iraqi regime fugitives.
Now, officials say they believe government forces killed Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri near Tikrit, where the former deputy to Saddam was working alongside Islamic State militants.
Reports of al-Douri’s death came Friday as Iraqi forces tried to push back Islamic State group fighters in Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is located. Government troops took back several towns near Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Beiji, officials said.
Farther north, a car bomb exploded next to the U.S. Consulate in the city of Irbil, a rare attack in the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone that killed three people and wounded five, police said. U.S. officials said no Americans were hurt and no casualties among consulate personnel or guards.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the blast went off outside a cafe next to the building in the Ankawa neighbourhood, setting several nearby cars on fire. Shortly afterward, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant websites.
The report of al-Douri’s death was not the first time Iraqi officials have claimed to have killed or captured the 72-year-old former aide to Saddam.
According to Raed al-Jabouri, the governor of Salahuddin province, al-Douri was killed by Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen in an operation in the Talal Hamreen mountains east of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, which was retaken from the Islamic State group earlier this month.
Troops opened fire at a convoy carrying al-Douri and nine bodyguards, killing all of them, Gen. Haider al-Basri, a senior commander, told state TV.
The government issues several photos showing a body purported to be al-Douri. The body had a bright red beard, perhaps dyed, and a ginger-colored moustache. Al-Douri was a fair-skinned redhead with a ginger moustache, making him distinctive among the members of Saddam’s inner circle.
Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, said the body was brought Friday night to Baghdad for DNA tests, which should be completed within 48 hours.
Col. Pat Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. had no information to corroborate the reported death of al-Douri.
In 2013, the Iraqi government said it arrested al-Douri, circulating a photo of a bearded man who resembled him. It later said it was a case of mistaken identity.
Al-Douri was officially the No. 2 man in Iraq’s ruling hierarchy. He served as vice chairman of Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council, was one of Saddam’s few longtime confidants, and his daughter was married briefly to Saddam’s son, Odai, who was killed with his brother, Qusai, by U.S. troops in Mosul after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
During the war, coalition troops were issued decks of playing cards with the names and faces of many of the most-wanted Iraqis on each one. Saddam was the ace of spades, Odai was the ace of hearts, and Qusai was ace of clubs.
Depicted on the cards as the king of clubs, al-Douri was shown in a photo with his red moustache, saluting smartly in his military uniform.
When the Baathist regime collapsed as U.S. troops occupied Baghdad, al-Douri disappeared. Initially, he was No. 6 on the most-wanted list of 55 Iraqis after the invasion.
After Saddam was captured and put to death months later and more regime figures were caught, al-Douri became the most prominent fugitive. U.S. authorities soon linked him to the Sunni insurgencies that erupted against the American occupation and the Shiite-led government that replaced Saddam. A bounty of $10 million was placed on his head.
Early in the war, U.S. authorities linked al-Douri to Ansar al-Islam, a militant group with ties to al-Qaida, and he was accused of being a major financier of the insurgency. Former officers from Saddam’s military and police were believed to have played large roles in the insurgency, whether with al-Qaida or other factions.
Al-Douri emerged as a leader of the shadowy Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order. The group portrays itself as a nationalist force defending Iraq’s Sunni minority from Shiite rule and as an alternative to the extremist version of Islam championed by al-Qaida.
The Islamic State group — the successor to al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq — launched a blitz last year across much of western and northern Iraq, and al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army and other former Saddam-era officers reportedly entered a shaky alliance with it.
When Tikrit was overrun by the Sunni militant group in June, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. Fighters loyal to his Naqshabandi Army as well as former members of the Baath Party were the main militant force in Tikrit at the time of its capture, residents told The Associated Press at the time. Still, the Naqshabandi Army criticized IS atrocities, including the persecution of religious minorities and the burning of a Jordanian pilot who was captured while flying airstrikes for the coalition against the extremists.
Iraqi security forces recaptured al-Douri’s hometown of Dawr last month as part of its large-scale offensive to retake Tikrit. Government forces seized Tikrit on April 1.
In other fighting Friday, Iraqi forces gained full control over a contested area south of the Beiji refinery as part of their push to secure the rest of Salahuddin province.
Gen. Ayad al-Lahabi, a commander with the Salahuddin Command Center, said the military, backed by coalition airstrikes and Shiite and Sunni militias dubbed the Popular Mobilization Forces, took over the towns of al-Malha and al-Mazraah, 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) south of the refinery, killing at least 160 Islamic State militants.
Al-Lahabi said security forces were trying to secure two corridors around the refinery itself after militants launched a large-scale attack on the complex earlier this week, hitting the refinery walls with explosives-laced Humvees.
IS extremists seized much of Salahuddin province last summer during an advance across northern and western Iraq. The battle for Tikrit was seen as a key step toward eventually driving the militants out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the capital of Nineveh province.
In November, Iraqi security forces said they had recaptured Beiji from the militant group. The refinery had never been taken by the militants but has been the target of frequent attacks.
Iraqi special forces maintained control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, after days of intense clashes with the Islamic State group left the city at risk. Sabah Nuaman, a special forces commander in Anbar, said the situation had improved early Friday after airstrikes hit key militant targets on the city’s fringes.
Sabah al-Karhout, head of Anbar’s provincial council, said there were no major attacks in Ramadi, but that militants maintained control of three villages east of the city that were captured Wednesday, sending thousands of civilians fleeing.
In Baghdad, a series of bombings Friday on mostly public places killed 40 people, officials said. No group claimed responsibility, although the Islamic State has taken credit for similar attacks, especially those targeting Shiites, as well as Iraqi security forces and government buildings.