BAGHDAD — One the most wanted men in Iraq, who served as chief deputy to former President Saddam Hussein, has died, according to reports in Arabic media Friday.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, 63, was believed to be a key financier and strategist for the bloody insurgency that followed the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq that toppled the Hussein regime. He had been diagnosed with cancer for at least six years.
Along with Saddam and vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, al-Douri was the only surviving participant of the 1968 coup that brought the Sunni-dominated Baath Party to power in Iraq.
U.S. military sources said they were investigating the reports of his death, which could not be independently confirmed Friday.
Al-Douri was the highest ranking Saddam regime official still at large and a $10 million reward had been posted by the U.S. for his capture or death. In the original list of 55 high-level fugitives prepared in playing-card form by U.S. officials, al-Douri was assigned the status of king of clubs.
News of al-Douri's death came amid reports that five more U.S. troops were killed since Thursday in the western Al Anbar province and the northern Kurdistan region. Two American soldiers were shot to death near Fallujah and a Marine was killed by a bomb in Karabila, a village along the Syrian border on Thursday. Two more soldiers died in a vehicle accident on Friday in the northern oil-rich region of Kirkuk.
Many Iraqis greeted the news of the death of al-Douri, who was being hunted for his role in the chemical bombing of Kurdish villages in 1988 among other alleged crimes, with happiness mixed with chagrin that he had yet again escaped justice.
"I feel sad because he was not presented to the trial as his fellow criminals. He should have been captured alive. Everybody hates him, he was a big man in Saddam government, and he supported Saddam from the beginning," said Ihab Issa, 23, a civil engineer.
Terrorism experts called al-Douri's death a blow to the insurgency. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, military affairs think tank, based in Washington, D.C., said that al-Douri, a devout Sunni Arab, linked Islamist fighters with Baathist Party insurgents.
Al-Douri played a major role in guiding Saddam's religious overtures toward Sunni Arabs after the 1991 Shiite uprising following the first Gulf War.
Al-Douri was perhaps best known in the West for his exchange with a Kuwaiti representative at an emergency Middle East nations conference two weeks before the war.
"Shut up you monkey, you cretin!" he yelled. "Allah curse your mustache, you traitor!"
Al-Douri's wealth at the end of his life belied his origins as the son of an ice seller. Like Hussein, al-Douri came from Tikrit and belonged to the same clan.
Al-Douri met Saddam in prison in the 1960s and thereafter participated in the Baath Party's bloody takeover of the government. Al-Douri's daughter wedded Saddam's son Uday but they later divorced.
Saddam chose al-Douri to be his northern military commander in the 1980s—a period when the regime killed thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons. When coalition forces took over Baghdad in 2003, al-Douri was believed to be in the north of the country. It was unclear on Friday where he had been hiding, but many Iraqis believe he has been in Saudi Arabia or Syria, countries where he has Baathist sympathizers.
"Izzat is a hero for us—if this is true, we lost a big sheikh in the resistance against the occupation and the (Iraqi) collaborators," said Mousafa Saleh, 32, a Baghdad taxi driver. "He was a big aid for Saddam, we will lose his money and his guidance, but the resistance will continue—maybe it will be affected, but it will go on."