Iraq: Why it doesn’t Matter if Ezzat al-Douri was Killed

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

The currently partly unemployed Iraqi governor of Salahuddin Province, displaced from much of his territory by Daesh (ISIS or ISIL), maintains that former Baath vice president of Iraq under Saddan Hussain, Ezzat al-Douri, has been killed by Shiite militias in a firefight north of Tikrit in the Hamrin mountains. The body has been delivered to the US embassy in Baghdad for a DNA test. Al-Douri was one of those wanted officials featured in George W. Bush’s stack of playing cards. The Baath Party of Iraq has denied the reports of his death.

Al-Douri is significant because he was one of the first high Baath officials to turn to a religious group as a power base. This strategy became common after the 2003 US invasion, but al-Douri did it in the late 1990s. The Baath Party had been founded by Christians and was militantly secular, often persecuting religious groups and parties.

Al-Douri, however, became a patron of the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Mosul, northern Iraq. Sunnis in Iraq at that time were still largely traditionalists, and Sufism was part of their tradition. Sufis emphasize mystical experience and are often dismissive of dry legalism (Christians might hear echoes of St. Paul and thinkers like Meister Eckhart). They meet on Thursday (and other) evenings for group chanting, and see God as a divine beloved. Their sensibilities are very different from the Wahhabi-influenced Salafi brand of Sunni Islam, which highlight strict adherence to its conception of Muslim religious law

The “Men of the Naqshbandi” emerged as one of the more effective guerrilla fighters against US and Iraqi Shiite troops in northern Iraq. Al-Douri was said to be behind them, a shadowy figure directing their insurgency. Still, there were some fifty major insurgency cells in northern and western Iraq during the past 12 years, and the Naqshbandis were only one. Some were secular, as most Sunni Arabs in Iraq had a secular mindset. Note that the Naqshbandi order in Turkey, Central Asia and Pakistan and India is not typically militant and that this Iraqi branch only turned to guerrilla activity because of American colonialism.

last spring, the Naqshbandis in Mosul were one of the groups that decided to ally with Daesh or ISIL to throw out the Shiite army. Daesh took advantage of the alliance to arrest leading Naqshbandi figures and ex-Baathist ones, stabbing their new allies in the back. (Daesh is an offshoot of Salafism and hates Sufis under ordinary circumstance).

The US military has a cult of ‘decapitating’ insurgent organizations. But this strategy manifestly has not worked against the Taliban or in Iraq. In part, some of these organizations are led by clans as republics of cousins, and when one leader is killed, his cousin just steps in. In part, they are based on religious ties. Jenna Jordan found that in only 5 percent of her 300 cases of insurgency was a decapitation strategy successful against a religious group. Religious charisma seems to be easily transferable.

So, it probably just doesn’t matter that much if al-Douri was killed (his death has been reported many times in the past). He was old in his 70s, and likely not very vigorous any more. And his earlier successes as an insurgent have turned bitter since his foolish decision to ally with Daesh went bad and the latter displaced him.

One conclusion we can draw is that by destroying the Baath government of Iraq, the Bush administration created a vacuum of power and culture that religious forms of resistance filled. Iraqi Sunnis were among the more secular people in the Middle East. It is desperation that drove them to religious revolt. One man’s death won’t make any difference in that process.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Izzat al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man, ‘killed in shoot-out'”

7 Responses

  1. According to NNDB Tracking the entire World web site, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Died: 12-Nov-2005.

    Since then I never heard, that he was ever resurrected to die again.

    • Izzat al-Douri has been reported dead on many previous occasions. Other sources indicated he is not even in Iraq.

      In 2009, CIA director David Petraeus claimed he was residing in Syria – another story had al-Douri living in Qatar.

      Absent credible forensic evidence, nothing is conclusive.

  2. This media sensation of reporting this one and that one killed smacks of the daily kill counts from Viet Nam. Father Ho had a lot of those little yellow people at his command, because they revered him so, that a few here and there, that the US made so much of, really were of no consequence to the final outcome. He lived very simply after the war, in stark contrast to Dubya. Always on point Juan, thank you. cdk

  3. A decapitation strategy is a short-term strategy, designed more for generating good-looking metrics for reporting purposes than actually achieving a goal. (The “body-count” metric of the Vietnam War is an example of the problems inherent in choosing metrics based on ease of measurement rather than stepping stones on the path to success.

    For example, consider the decapitation strategy as employed in the “War on Drugs.” There have been any number of triumphant notices proclaiming the killing or capture of top drug cartel leaders – notice how the flow of drugs seems largely unaffected by such notices? Some short-term disruptions, maybe some turf wars, but no long term effect.

    If one doesn’t address the root causes of a problem, treating the symptoms won’t solve anything.

  4. While some Sufis are not legalistic, the Naqshabandi order is. The idea that legalism is one of the main differences between Wahhabis and other groups doesn’t work very well. Most of the opponents of the Wahhabis/Salafis are quite legalistic: not only the Naqshabandis, but also the ayatollahs in Iraq.

    On the other hand, I would argue that ISIS is not very legalistic in the traditional sense. Sure, they adopt the Sharia lingo and tenuous legal arguments to make their acts sound legitimate. But they can be best described as adopting a hyper-modernist approach to legal methodology, since for them the threshold for overturning centuries-old rules of fiqh based on the principle of “necessity” is very low.

    Academics and journalist overemphasize Islamic law as a point of contention in contemporary conflicts. While there is no doubt that many groups appeal to Islamic law intheir attacks on opponents, we must be careful to not confuse justifications with motives.

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