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The Sufist Izzat Al-Douri and the Extremist ISIS





By Abdulrahman al-Rashed

20 April 2015

Although DNA results have not yet publicly revealed whether the red-bearded man whose death in Iraq recently made headlines is really Izzat al-Douri, a marginal figure associated with Saddam Hussien, it must be said that the maelstrom this death whipped up was more than Douri actually deserved.

The struggle in Iraq is shrouded in mystery as a result of multiple shifting alliances. The Washington Post’s report that the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is led by Baathists from the dissolved army of Saddam Hussein has plenty of stock to it but this does not mean that ISIS is secretly a Baathist organization or that it’s run completely by former Baathist officers.

The al-Qaeda organization previously used different individuals and groups to enhance its capabilities. The organization even allied itself with the regime in Tehran which still hosts some al-Qaeda leaders in the country. Al-Qaeda, in the past, and ISIS must have used the help of the officers hailing from Saddam Hussein’s army – an army which was more experienced and competent due to its engagement in complicated wars.

ISIS and the Baathists

I believe that ISIS is not as Baathist as it’s been made out to be. It is instead a developed version of al-Qaeda and it shares the same principles and goals. Most Baathist leaders from the dissolved Iraqi army are elderly and are thus incapable of managing an organization that predominantly consists of youths driven by extremist religious principles.

What we do know is that members of the so-called “Saddam Martyrs Brigade,” a terror group infamous for its terrible crimes, have moved to Syria and have operated under the command of the Assad regime for years. It is also said that the Assad regime previously used members of the Fedayeen Saddam in its domestic wars and in its foreign wars.

Izzat al-Douri, who has been known to be one of the only remaining Saddam-era individuals to be active in recent years, has never appeared on television and only issued statements via audio recordings. Some people, whose narratives I trust, did in fact meet him, confirmed his identity and confirmed that although he was in hiding, he was still very much active in the Iraqi arena.

Those who met him said that he told them that he and his men are in charge of ISIS, however, I believe that such statements are pure exaggeration in a bid to garner attention.


This exaggeration was exposed when, in July, Douri appealed to ISIS to release men affiliated with his group who were being held by the extremist organization. Instead, ISIS executed the 12 men from the Naqshbandi Order, one of a number of underground Baathist and Sufist militant insurgency groups in Iraq.

Let’s not forget that the contradiction between Naqshbandi and ISIS’ intellect is huge and it pits them against each other as two bitter rivals. ISIS, to this day, continues to destroy Naqshbandi mosques and fight against them. The Ottomans previously used the Naqshbandis to fight extremist Salafists as they describe one another as infidels. The Naqshbandi originated as a Sufist group from Central Asia which spread in Turkey and it therefore cannot be in the same basket as ISIS. This could only be the case in a temporary situation such as having to cooperate against a mutual enemy - this is what happened intermittently when the two clashed against Nouri al-Maliki’s forces which did not differentiate between those who opposed him.

I do not think Douri was an efficient figure, unlike what is being said about him. During the era of Saddam Hussein, who was known for sparking fear in those surrounding him, Douri was described as weak and as an embarrassment to the party. Few people were spared Saddam’s executions and this includes Saddam’s relatives and Douri, because he did not pose a credible threat, escaped this and managed to maintain the trust of the president. Saddam Hussein also hated and feared clergymen and perceived less danger when it came to the Naqshbandi as it was a Sufist minority within the Sunni community and it did not have the desire to gain power. The only real worth Douri had was his symbolism, considering he was one of the last free members of Saddam’s cohort to live.

The propaganda which accompanied reports and statements on Douri’s death a few days ago aimed to raise the morale of the Iraqi government-backed forces. However, Douri is not an important figure, regardless of whether he’s alive or dead. The more dangerous men remain far away from the army’s and popular mobilization militias’ gunfire and they are the ones who represent the real long-term threat. That is unless the prime minister and Iraq’s forces realize that the solution is not only a military one but must also include a reconciliation with Iraq’s other components.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.