How long would you last, at age 60, on the run from the world’s greatest superpower, with a $10 million bounty on your head, with tens of thousands of foreign soldiers hunting you, with all the enemies you created after a lifetime of war crimes and murder as a top official in the service of a genocidal ruler who has just been deposed now baying for your head, and possibly suffering from leukemia?
So Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri found himself in 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq deposed his boss, Saddam Hussein. Douri, who, as a field marshal in the Iraqi army had helped lead ethnic cleansing campaigns against Iraq’s Kurdish and Shia Muslim populations, was out of a job and on the king of clubs in the infamous Iraq’s most wanted deck of playing cards distributed by U.S. forces.
Yet not only did Douri evade capture, but also his career as one of Iraq’s murderous masterminds reached its golden years. He became the leader of the Baathist insurgency after Saddam’s capture in 2004, outlived the U.S. occupation, which ended in 2009. And then, after joining forces with the insurgents of Syria’s Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), lead their military expansion back into Iraq in 2014.
Now it appears that 12 years later, at the age of 72, Douri has finally been forcibly retired from the insurgency rat race. The Iraqi government says that its forces killed him and nine of his retainers on the eastern outskirts of Tikrit, which the Iraqi government recently recaptured from ISIL with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes and Iranian-backed militias.
If true, it would represent a major feather in the cap of the Iraqi government, which is trying to regain the confidence of its people after its incompetence on the battlefield allowed ISIL to take Tikrit and other Iraqi cities in the first place. Of course, Douri has been reportedly killed or captured several times before. But the Iraqi government is circulating photographs of a bullet-ridden body that resembles the strikingly red-haired general and conducting DNA tests to confirm its identity.
Whether it ends up being true or false, news of his death highlights the uncanny durability both of Douri and of Iraq’s post-Saddam anti-government insurgency. Douri was a consummate player of the Middle Eastern games of thrones, allying himself with a shifting cast of characters among the regional powers jockeying for supremacy in this contested, oil-rich region.
During his days inside the Iraqi government, Saddam and Douri had backing from the West and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia for Iraq’s campaign against Iran’s Shia theocracy. In 1990, they turned against their former allies by invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia. While on the run after the U.S. invasion, Douri received shelter and support from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which let fighters and weapons cross its border with Iraq, hoping to keep the U.S. bogged down there. And the latest and last alliance between Douri — the once secular, once Assad-allied Baathist general — and the fundamentalist anti-Assad ISIL says just as much about ISIL as it does about Douri.
Through its carefully staged public relations campaign with its drone-filmed battle scenes, cleanly edited videos of journalists being beheaded and ancient heritage sites smashed, ISIL has created an image of itself that plays well into Western fears of a clash of civilization with radical Islam: that of alienated Muslims from around the world flocking to build a premodern Islamic caliphate in the wreckage of civil war-torn Syria and Iraq on the bodies of non-Muslim infidels and apostate Muslims.
But what perhaps sets it most apart from militant groups which proceeded ISIL such as Al-Qaeda, is its ability to conquer and openly hold territory, which it did most spectacularly in 2014 when it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. ISIL has that ability, in large part, because of its alliance with the insurgent Baathist elements of Saddam’s former regime, led until now by Douri, who reportedly taught them complex military tactics and how to make use of U.S.-donated military equipment captured from the Iraqi army.
The irony of this alliance is rich and circular. Syria’s Assad used Douri to get back at the Americans (who had threatened to depose Assad in the early days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), then Douri allied with ISIL and creates the most dangerous opposition group fighting Assad in the Syrian civil war, which in turn gives Assad cover for murdering his citizens in the name of the war against Islamic terrorism. It only makes sense when you remember that most important value of the game is survival.
Just how long the alliance between the whiskey-swilling, cigarette-smoking Baathist military men of Douri’s ilk and puritanical ISIL fighters can last is crucial. There have been signs of bad blood between the two groups, such as in July 2014, when Douri called for an uprising in Iraq without any mention of ISIL. And of course, one wonders how an expert survivalist such as Douri ends up getting caught by the Keystone cops of the Iraqi army. Did ISIL betray him? Is this a sign that ISIL is turning inward, more concerned about ideological purity than in battlefield logistics?
The world can only hope that without Douri to guide it in the dark arts of Middle Eastern survival, ISIL will turn out to be as insane and unstable as it wants us to think it is.