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Exit the Improbable Survivor

EXIT THE IMPROBABLE SURVIVOR

If Izzet Ibrahim Khalil Duri, longtime deputy to Saddam Hussein and leader of the Naqshband Army in Iraq, has really been slain today, it marks the end of a long, improbable and even astounding career.

There was no reason to presume that Izzet Ibrahim would long outlive his longtime patron Saddam Hussein. A nearly illiterate loyalist from an impoverished background—his father, Ibrahim Khalil, had sold ice blocks in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province—with no power base of his own, it was Izzet’s sheer reliability—with no power base of his own, Izzet’s position banked heavily on Saddam—that had recommended him to become a top henchman of the Baathist dictator for forty years. For a backward rube from rural central Iraq, clientele with Saddam was a road to social and economic promotion.

Sick and frail by the time the United States conquered Iraq in 2003, Izzet was the most wanted man in Iraq—beating, for a time, even the infamous Al-Qaeda in Iraq (IS) founder Abu Musab Zarqawi—for the vast majority of the war, beating even Al-Qaeda ideologues and Baath veterans. How did he survive? The record suggests a far cleverer, more versatile character than could ever have been expected from the bony, red-mustached officer seen in a stiff salute.

Strangely in a country where the Baath came to infiltrate everything from the most rudimentary profession to the most committed ideologue, Izzet had not been a registered member of the party, strictly speaking: certainly he shares none of the party titles enjoyed by other longtime regime leaders, such as Taha Ramadan, Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed and Chemical Ali Majid. Apparently Saddam was confident enough that his client and henchman would not waver that he never bothered. Izzet’s position was, instead, vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, a body subordinate to the Baath. It was a post he held for over thirty years; on the way he survived his daughter’s failed marriage with Saddam’s thuggish son, Uday, whose divorce does not seem to have dented Izzet’s own stakes. While he cannot be plausibly exempted from the collective crimes of the regime, Izzet oddly appears in very few of the recorded Baath abuses—in which high-ranked henchmen like Chemical Ali, Taha Ramadan, Hussein Kamel and others regularly featured. The likeliest explanation is that, like defence minister Sultan Hashim and Adnan Tulfah, Izzet played the “sympathetic foil” role in the regime: unlike Sultan and Adnan, however, both respected soldiers whose careers had progressed on their professional merits, Izzet had been a longtime and unquestioning officer for Saddam.

Izzet and Ramadan had assisted Saddam in his gradual takeover of the Baath Party under the military dictator, Ahmed Bakar, under whose regime the civilian wing of the Baath—bolstered with strongarm militias from which Saddam himself had come—marginalized the Baathists in the army, led by Salih Ammash and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, both eventually purged before Saddam formally seized power in 1979. As Saddam’s deputy Izzet oversaw the rise of several paramilitaries loyal to the regime. Saddam liked to play soldier—for a man who never joined the army, the Baathist dictator always swaggered about in fatigues—and he promoted several of his colleagues, including Izzet, to the rank of commanders, much to the chagrin of career soldiers.

Izzet’s principal role during the 1980s war with Iran was in the Kurdish north, where he had longtime contacts, particularly among the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood. The Baath regime was a secular one, but as has only occasionally been noted Izzet—both conservative and, apparently, terribly traditionalist—was one of its few openly pietistic figures. Izzet also owned substantial holdings in the north that had been formally appropriated by the regime, and he often leveraged these into influence. Quietly, this influence appears to have increased to the extent that Izzet managed to find a haven after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Consequently, Izzet was one of the very few regime members who opposed the massacre of the Kurds by 1988—an objection that temporarily saw him sidelined in the late 1980s in favour of Saddam’s kinsman, the callous Chemical Ali—though he wasn’t above threatening a repeat of the massacre in 1991, when the Kurds threatened to and did break away.

That was in the wake of the swift, devastating 1990-91 war with the United States over Kuwait. Just hours before Iraq invaded and conquered Kuwait, Izzet had in fact hammered out an agreement, with a genial handshake flung in for effect, with the Kuwaiti royalist Saad Sabah in Jeddah. It is unclear whether this was a calculated ruse on Izzet’s part or if he had simply not been informed, but in any case the invasion backfired spectacularly, playing right into the hands of a hawkish Washington establishment and triggering one of the most one-sided wars in history that drove Iraq out and led to a decade of sanctions, poverty, aerial siege and misery that crippled ordinary Iraqis even as Saddam and his henchmen railed anti-imperialist slogans from the comfort of their largely unaffected palaces.

In an effort to capitalize on growing outrage in the Muslim world at the invasion and to monitor an increased religiosity among its citizens, the Baath regime adopted a more Islamic overtone in the 1990s. Ever the pietistic Sufi, Izzet led this effort, leveraging his political connections into a controversial fast-tracked certificate from shaikhs in the north and chairing an Islamic Congress at Baghdad in 1993. It has generally been suspected that the regime’s appeals to pietism were a cynical exploitation—which may or mayn’t hold—but in Izzet’s case, he had long been both a practicing Muslim and a superstitious conservative character. A botched attempt on his life at Karbala in 1998 further seems to have convinced Izzet that Allah had protected him for a purpose.

With that background, it is perhaps unsurprising that Izzet quickly found refuge during the 2003 conquest of Iraq, where his zone command in the north quickly melted against persistent aerial bombardment. Nonetheless, as a septuagenarian stricken with illness and a price on his scalp, it is remarkable that Izzet survived as long as he did. The brutal regime had been hated even by most insurgents, and Izzet had been a longtime accomplice. It appears that Izzet had a far more reliable power base than had been expected, perhaps as the foil to the brutal Chemical Ali and other lieutenants of the regime. It was also one of the more important bridges between the secularists and Islamists whose relationship so confounded analysts of the insurgency.

The younger, harder Baathists were led mainly by Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed, who spent the war in Damascus on the sufferance of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrian and Iraqi regimes, though both Baathists, had long been enemies, and Izzet’s hatred and suspicion as an old-school Sunni nationalist of the Iranians with whom the Syrians were linked meant he kept his distance. This itself led to a split in the regime loyalist ranks, with Izzet’s base in north-central Iraq and Sabahi’s across the border in Syria; they coordinated as did most insurgents at that point, but were distinct. By 2004-05, the abuses of the counterinsurgency, epitomized by the siege of Fallujah but also by the brutality of the security services, had led to increased animosity against the occupation. Sufi leaders such as Abdullah Mustafa, the Irbil leader of the Naqshbandi Army, and Abdul-Rahim Qadiri, leader of the Qadiri order in Karkuk, announced jihad against the occupation. Particularly in northern and central Iraq, Izzet’s Naqshbandis enjoyed far more currency than the discredited and suspected Baathists in Syria.

How exactly Izzet survived and led the insurgency will probably not be publicly known for years. Around the former regime stronghold of Takrit, his former bodyguards Basim Intu and Qasim Intu, and his nephew Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, were suspected, as of 2005, of financing the insurgency. Periodically proclaimed dead only to reappear in a murky 2013 clip, he relied largely on the support of field officers such as the powerful field commander Abdul-Baqi Saadoun, who by 2014 had become enough of a threat that Izzet sacked him. Though the explosive, controversial and unabashedly sectarian Al-Qaeda in Iraq (later IS) were an outsized outlier among the rebel ranks, often fighting with other rebels and flinging accusations of heresy or treachery, by 2014 Iraq’s mainstream Sunni Arab opposition had become desperate enough that, in a fit of what intelligence expert Malcolm Nance pithily termed “swallowing antifreeze”, they supported a massive IS offensive led by Adnan Najam and Tarkhan Umar that seized Mosul and spread from there. Their leader, Abu Dua Baghdadi, announced himself caliph in the summer of 2014 and drew an influx of recruits attracted by the slogans IS espoused and by its sudden burst of momentum.

The Naqshbandis’ relations with IS were ambiguous; they supported its conquest of 2014, yet by 2015 its open sadism and millenarian nihilism—often openly flouting the same Islamic principles it so stridently screeched—forced Izzet to publicly distance the Naqshbandis from their allies. It was one of the last moves, if reports are to be believed, that the grizzled old campaigner ever made. In Apr 2015 the offensive against the rebels reportedly slew Izzet, ending at long last an unexpectedly resilient, resourceful and violent career that varied from a loyalist henchman in a brutal totalitarian regime to a wily insurgent leader, and, once relieved of the shadow of his longtime master, an unlikely survivor.

Ibrahim Moiz, 2015

Note: Citations to follow InshaAllah

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