An infamous Saddam-era Ba’ath Party general has been reported dead in Iraq. It is at least the fourth time he has reportedly died, although this time the remnants of the party have announced Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s demise.
“In the face of this momentous event, we are confident, fellow militant comrades, that you will follow the will of our late comrade who called us all, may God have mercy on him, to persevere in principles, to be patient and calm, and to adhere to the principles of the Baath, its system of morals, organizational traditions and values; to continue, perpetuate and enhance the momentum of our struggle for our people,” the Ba’ath Party announced.
Douri was born in 1942 near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. He was interior minister in the 1960s and was instrumental in transforming Iraq under Saddam. He eventually led the Revolutionary Command Council and was a key figure in the Iran-Iraq War.
He also was involved in genocide against Kurds and suppressing Shi’ites. He was responsible for encouraging more religious devotion in the ostensibly secular Ba’athist Iraq. He threatened Israel in 2000 during the Second Intifada.
After the US invasion, Douri vanished and became one of the world’s most wanted men. His family was detained, but he evaded capture. He resurfaced as part of the Iraqi Sunni-led insurgency and was linked to the Naqshbandi group of insurgents. He was named head of the Ba’ath Party after Saddam’s capture and execution in 2006.
Douri became a phantom, moving between Tikrit, Mosul, Qaim and other areas in Iraq, with rumors he even went abroad to Syria and elsewhere. He began putting out videos in 2012 and 2013, warning Iraq against the rising power of sectarian Shi’ite groups linked to former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
ISIS, which also grew out of the insurgency, leveraged the anger among Iraqi Sunni Arabs when it marched into Mosul in June 2014 and took over a swath of western and northwestern Iraq.
Douri’s presence when ISIS arrived helped to cement claims that it was linked to the Ba’ath Party, a narrative that was put forward by some who wanted to assert that ISIS was not a jihadist, genocidal, Islamist group but rather some kind of conspiracy linked to former regime elements and the Assad regime.
THE ASSAD regime in Syria is also Ba’athist in origin. At the time, Nadim Shehadi of the Fares Center at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy was quoted by VOA as saying many former Ba’athist officers, including Douri, were “the real military force inside [Islamic State, which] is composed of former Ba’athist officers and [of] some of the tribes that were disenfranchised and unhappy with the way the Americans left and with the way the [former] Maliki government was behaving. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was one of the principal people within that context.”
However, the reality was more complex. Douri did appear during the rise of ISIS in June 2014 in Iraq. The Telegraph reported that the “red devil,” known for his red mustache, was going to lead the battle for Baghdad to eject the “Persians.” That never transpired. He wasn’t really “back in the fray,” despite reports, and he was reportedly killed in April 2015.
During his reported 2015 death, Douri was allegedly hunted down during an operation in Salahaddin province in the Aalas oil field near Tikrit. Raed al-Jabbouri, governor of the province, reported his death. According to Karim al-Nouri of the pro-Iran Badr Organization, “We received intelligence that a VIP was in the city of Hawija, and we were waiting to ambush him.”
Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah both said they played a role in helping to kill Douri. At the time, Hadi al-Amiri said he was found in the Hamreen Mountains, an area where many insurgents hid. The Ba’ath Party said he was still alive, and he resurfaced in 2016, evidently alive.
In statements in 2017, Douri allegedly told a Tunisian newspaper about his views on Iraq, Syria and Tunisia. He argued that Iran was controlling Iraq’s government and that Syria’s Assad regime had become sectarian under Iranian influence.
Douri distanced the Ba’ath Party of Iraq from allegations that it was linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS, claiming that under Saddam’s rule there had been no terrorism in Iraq. He made another video in 2018, again slamming the Iraqi government, this time of Haider al-Abadi, claiming it had destroyed many Iraqi cities in the defeat of ISIS.
He also slammed Salafists and “Safavids,” the latter a reference to Iran’s hegemony in the region. More rumors surfaced in 2019 of his continued activity. However, it appears by this year he was suffering from a variety of ailments that had afflicted him for years.
Douri’s death, again, marks a bookend to Saddam’s regime. Most Iraqis who are protesting against the current government have no memory of the Saddam era. All they know is the corruption and poverty that have harmed Iraq under its pro-Iranian leadership since the early 2000s.
Following the US invasion, the Obama administration preferred the pro-Iranian strongman Maliki, and that led to the semi-collapse of Iraq under the ISIS invasion. Then Abadi was pushed by the US to isolate the pro-American Kurdish region and again empower Iran.
Today, Iraq’s leader, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is trying to heal the wounds of the past. But he is being undermined by pro-Iranian militias. The US is drawing down troops after helping defeat ISIS. It is unclear what will come next.
Douri’s analysis of Iraq – from having supported genocide, suppression of minorities and threatening Israel and Kuwait, to now complaining about the rise of extremist groups and Iran – may seem relevant. But it was his regime’s brutality that helped create the current era – and the shadow of Saddam’s regime still hangs over Iraq.
The genocidal brutality of ISIS happened in Iraq at least in part because of a history of genocide of minorities in the country and a tolerance by the regime for extermination of people. Douri played a key role in that.