BAGHDAD — Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a top aide to ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is dying of leukemia and cannot be playing any major role in orchestrating the current wave of attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces and their Iraqi allies, according to sources familiar with the old regime’s functioning.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday appeared to pull back from earlier comments by U.S. defense officials that al-Douri had been masterminding strikes such as last week’s wave of suicide attacks in downtown Baghdad, reportedly working with an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group that had operated before the war out of a small enclave in northern Iraq.
“I really don’t have enough conviction on the subject that I would want to try and confirm or deny it,” Mr. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing.
Unidentified saboteurs brought a trainload of U.S. Army supplies to a fiery halt west of Baghdad yesterday, as a Ramadan campaign of terror bombs and escalating attacks continued.
Al-Douri, a longtime Saddam aide who was appointed military commander of Iraq’s forces in the north just before the war began, is the most senior official of the old regime still at large. He is No. 6 on the most-wanted list of 55 Iraqis and was vice chairman of Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council.
U.S. defense officials told a number of news organizations earlier this week on background that two captured fighters from Ansar al-Islam, a shadowy terrorist group that includes Iraqi Kurdish Islamic fundamentalists and foreign fighters drawn from the Islamic world, had identified al-Douri as the force behind some of the attacks, which Mr. Rumsfeld yesterday said were showing signs of increasing financial and logistical coordination.
The connection would be the first link between elements of Saddam’s ousted regime and an organization with proven ties to non-Iraqi militant groups.
But evidence of al-Douri’s illness is indisputable.
Iraqi government sources said publicly in 1997 that al-Douri was traveling to Vienna, Austria, via Jordan for leukemia treatments. It was considered a measure of Saddam’s confidence in his longtime ally that al-Douri’s wife was permitted to travel with him.
The nature of the treatment was not disclosed at the time, but sources who had close ties with the former regime have told The Washington Times that al-Douri has to have regular transfusions.
Being on the run since Saddam’s overthrow will have made medical treatments far more difficult and al-Douri’s health is likely to have deteriorated further, the Iraqi sources said.
He is believed still to be in the area around Mosul. That is too far north to be considered within the heartland of the current resistance, which is focused within the “Sunni Triangle” formed by Ramadi, Tikrit and western Baghdad.
“He is a sick and weak man and can do little on his own,” said one key source.
Muhammad Sabir, who heads the Washington office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main pro-U.S. Iraqi Kurdish parties, said Ansar al-Islam had shown clear signs of regrouping after a devastating attack on its base by U.S. Special Forces and allied Kurdish fighters in late March.
“They were quiet at the end of the war, but we have seen them stepping up activities both in our region and in the center,” Mr. Sabir said.
But Ansar leaders have repeatedly denied any alliance with the secular Saddam regime.
David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.