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Saddam Hussein's right-hand man dead, announces Iraq's Baath Party

After evading capture for 17 years, circumstances of Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri's death remain unknown
Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri
Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri reviews a military honour guard during a ceremony marking Martyrs' Day in Baghdad, December 1999 (AFP)

One of the last surviving senior figures in the government of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein has died, according to an announcement by the Iraqi Baath Party.

Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, arguably the most high-profile Saddam Hussein-era officials to evade capture in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, had made infrequent public appearences in recent years. The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein  and the vice president of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, attend a military parade in Iraq (AFP)
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the vice-president of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, attend a military parade at Baghdad's Victory Square, 31 December 2000 (AFP)

In a statement released on Facebook, the now-banned Iraqi Arab Socialist Baath Party described Douri as "the knight of the Baath and the Iraqi national resistance" and said he had joined Hussein and other fallen Baathists in the afterlife.

"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 abide by principles, to be patient and calm, and to adhere to the principles of the Baath, its ethics, organisational traditions and values, to continue, perpetuate and enhance the momentum of our struggle for our people," said the statement.

The statement did not disclose any details about the circumstances of Douri's death.

'The Iceman'

Born near Tikrit to humble beginnings, Douri - nicknamed "The Iceman" due to his previous profession delivering ice - first became a government minister in 1968 under Hussein's predecessor, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, following the 17 July coup that brought the Baath Party to power.

Over the next 35 years, as a government official and vice-chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, Douri became one of Hussein's most loyal henchmen, and played major roles in the wars with Iran and Kuwait.

He was also one of the architects of the Anfal campaign, which saw hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds killed between 1986 and 1989 in what many branded as genocide.

Douri's main legacy, if any, is the state-approved introduction of Islamic fundamentalism into Iraqi society, something to which historians point as a major factor in the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and, later, the Islamic State group.

In the 1990s, the erstwhile largely secular Baathist government began to introduce Islamic-inspired laws and religious symbolism into public life, as part of its Return to Faith campaign.

The campaign, largely seen as a cynical move to undermine the growing popularity of Islamist movements in the country, was overseen by Douri and introduced harsher punishments - such as beheadings or amputations - for crimes such as theft and prostitution, and placed a greater emphasis on Islam in the education system.

In 2000, Hussein unveiled a copy of the Quran he had commissioned, with the words reportedly inked in his own blood.

During this period, Douri was able to build support in Iraq for the Naqshbandi Order, a sufi organisation to which he belonged.

'Saying that the members of [IS] are officers from the Iraqi army is unacceptable because it is intended as an insult primarily to the Baath Party and then the great Iraqi Army and the national regime'

- Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri

Following the overthrow of Hussein in 2003, Douri managed to avoid capture and become one of the most-wanted figures in the former administration, hunted by the US-led coalition.

In 2006, following Hussein's execution, he was proclaimed the new leader of the Baath Party. Around the same time, the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order emerged as an armed group -  thought to be led by Douri - espousing a mixture of Islamic and Baathist ideology in opposition to the occupation forces.

Comprised of former Baathists and military personnel, the group in part played a role in defending Naqshbandi sufi members from attacks from militant groups - but it would eventually become more notorious for forming an alliance with IS and aiding them in capturing the city of Mosul in 2014.

Islamic State alliance

Analysts long maintained that IS was also heavily comprised of former Baathists and that the alliance with the Naqshbandi Army stemmed from this. However, ideologically they were far apart - with commentator Michael Knights noting the Baathists' tastes for the distinctly un-IS vices of nationalism and whisky - and the two groups later fell to fighting.

Douri's whereabouts between 2003 and 2020 had never been confirmed, and he was believed to have frequently moved between Tikrit, Mosul, Diyala and other regions.

He was reported killed in 2015 by Iraqi militias, but later appeared alive on video.

In a 2017 interview with Tunisian newspaper Acharaa al-Maghrebi, he appeared to deny allegations that former Baathists had made up the primary bulk of IS and Al-Qaeda.

"Saying that the members of [IS] are officers from the Iraqi army is unacceptable because it is intended as an insult primarily to the Baath Party and then the great Iraqi Army and the national regime," he told the newspaper.

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He also decried the spread of Iran's influence across the Middle East, saying that Syria's ruling Baath Party - which split from Iraq's Baath Party in the 1960s - had "handed over Syria's land and people to the Persians".

The last appearance of Douri was in a video in April 2019, in which he apologised for Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait.

"Kuwait is not part of Iraq," he said, in contrast to the beliefs of many Iraqi nationalists.

"Iraq and Kuwait are part of the Peninsula, which is part of the larger Arab nation."

The announcement of his death on Monday will likely still be viewed with scepticism by some due to the many previous false alarms about his demise - although the fact it was announced by the Baath Party would seem to add legitimacy this time.

As late as this month, Iraqi politicians had claimed Douri was preparing a coup in Iraq. The fear and hatred - as well as, in some corners, admiration - that the Baath Party and Hussein's administration still evoke in Iraq has meant they have remained a popular political trope.

But it still largely remains a mystery how much real influence Douri and his allies have actually managed to maintain since their decades-long rule ended in 2003.