Most senior Baathist general to evade US in Iraq reported killed. Does it matter?

Douri was the King of Clubs in the playing cards that the US distributed as its most-wanted list after invading Iraq and had linked up with the Islamic State.

Reuters/File
Iraq's vice-Chairman of the Revolution Command Council, Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, salutes in Mosul, Iraq in this undated photo.

Gen. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the most senior member of the Baath Party leadership to escape following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was killed today north of Baghdad, according to the governor of Salahuddin Province. 

Douri's name was one to conjure with before the US invasion - he was one of the organizers of the massacres in the Shiite south that followed Iraq's defeat in Kuwait in 1991 - and since. The former Iraqi vice president and head of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council was a key figure in bringing former Iraqi army officers and soldiers into the burgeoning Sunni Arab insurgency in the early years of the US occupation. 

He reemerged last year in alliance with the Islamic State at the time insurgents overran the city of Mosul. Though hailing from the secular nationalist Baath Party, Douri and many Baathists spent much of the past decade working with jihadi groups - first Al Qaeda in Iraq, later its successor IS - and the success of their effort was demonstrated in Mosul.

In 2007, Douri was named as the head of a coalition of insurgent groups with his Naqshabandiyah Order - a Sufi grouping of ex-Baathist soldiers and their supporters - at its head. Many Sufi orders in Iraq were enthusiastic supporters of Hussein's regime, and while they might have doctrinal differences with jihadi groups like IS, both sides see the Shiite dominated government that came to power in Baghdad after 2003 as their principle enemy.

But does Douri's death, if confirmed (Iraqi television showed pictures of a dead body purported to be him), represent a significant blow to the insurgency?

Col. (Ret.) Pat Lang, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Middle East desk, doubts the death of Douri will matter for much. He "may have been killed. So what?," writes Lang. "He was always a political leader of the Baath Party and may have been instrumental in brokering former Iraqi Army officer support for IS."

That brokering having been done, it's quite possible that Douri's contributions, such as they were, were over. While his death is sure to be wildly popular among Iraq's Shiites and ethnic Kurds, short-term good feelings are not going to win the Iraqi civil war for Baghdad's side. And Douri was no kid - he was born in 1942.

In the past decade, many former Baathists have become full-fledged jihadis themselves - a function of both having served a God that failed and calculation that it may be their lone possible route back to power. Last summer, after Mosul fell to IS, reports emerged that the Naqshbandi Order had fallen out with IS, with many of its elements absorbed by larger rivals. While that's difficult to confirm, or deny, it's a safe bet that the insurgency is not going to crumble at the loss of one man. 

This week, IS and its allies have not lacked for operational moxie. They've mounted an assault on Ramadi, the capital of Fallujah province, that has Iraqi officials warning that the only population center they control in the sprawling, Sunni dominated province, could soon fall out of their hands.

Anbar shares a long border with parts of Syria under IS control, and insurgents have long been able to move reinforcements and equipment across it with impunity.

Today, a suicide car bomber from IS tried to attack the US consulate in the Kurdish city of Erbil, and fighting continues to rage in Salahuddin, whose capital Tikrit was won back by government forces with US air support earlier this month. Salahuddin governor Raed al-Jabouri told Iraqi television that Douri was killed in a battle northeast of Tikrit, his hometown and that of Hussein.

And amid the ongoing fighting, Mosul - Iraq's second largest city - remains fully in IS hands.

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