Iraqi officials said Izzat Ibrahim Douri, a top deputy to former president Saddam Hussein and one of the U.S. military's two most-wanted fugitives in Iraq, was captured in a raid conducted by Iraqi security forces on Sunday. But U.S. military officials cast doubt on the claim, saying Ibrahim was not in the custody of U.S.-led multinational forces.
Two senior government officials speaking on condition of anonymity said Ibrahim was apprehended during a raid on a health clinic in Dawr, a hamlet south of Tikrit that is his home town and the site where Hussein was discovered hiding in a hole in December. The officials said the operation, led by Iraqi National Guard forces, sparked a bloody firefight with Ibrahim's supporters that resulted in 70 deaths and 80 people arrested.
"It's him," one of the senior officials said. "We've got Izzat Douri."
Two cabinet ministers publicly confirmed the capture. Minister of State Qasim Dawood announced Ibrahim's arrest at a news conference in Kuwait and said 150 people with Ibrahim had been either killed or arrested.
"We had received information that he was admitted to a hospital near Tikrit, or let us say a clinic, to have blood transfusion," Saleh Sarhan, a Defense Ministry spokesman, told al Hurra, a U.S.-funded, Arabic-language television station. "As soon as we received this information, the forces were able to plan a major operation to arrest him."
U.S. military officials were skeptical of the claim. Maj. Neal O'Brien, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, which is stationed in Tikrit and supervises Iraqi National Guard operations in the area, said he could not confirm that Ibrahim had been captured. In Baghdad, the U.S. military command issued a one-sentence statement saying he was not being held by U.S.-led forces.
It is highly unusual for National Guard units in the area of Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, to conduct operations without U.S. forces to provide backup. O'Brien said he was not aware of any joint operations Sunday.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said it would be a breach of standard procedures for a National Guard operation to be conducted without the involvement or, at the very least, the knowledge of U.S. commanders in the area. It is even more unusual for U.S. officials not to know about a raid said to have involved 70 fatalities and 80 arrests.
"It doesn't sound accurate," the senior official said.
The Iraqi defense minister, Hazim Shalan, said in an interview with Lebanon's al Hayat-LBC television that reports that Ibrahim had been captured were "baseless," the Associated Press reported.
The National Guard commander in the Tikrit area, Gen. Ahmed Khalaf Salman, told the Reuters news service that none of his men was involved in a capture mission. "We have no information. No units of ours took part in such an operation," he told the Reuters news service.
One cabinet minister, Minister of State Wael Abdul-Latif, told several Arab television stations he was "75 percent sure" Ibrahim had been captured. He said blood and DNA tests were being conducted to verify the suspect's identity.
There have been several reports of Ibrahim's capture since the fall of Hussein's government, all of which have turned out to be erroneous. In one notable case, a member of Iraq's former Governing Council proclaimed on television that Ibrahim had been caught in a raid in the northern city of Kirkuk, only to recant a few hours later.
An orange-haired former ice salesman, Ibrahim rose through the ranks of the Baath Party to become vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, the all-powerful executive committee that ran Iraq under Hussein. Since Hussein's capture, Ibrahim has been the highest-ranking member of the former government still at large.
The U.S. military has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. The only other individual who has such a large bounty on his head is Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who is alleged to have orchestrated a string of bombings, kidnappings and other attacks over the past year. Both men head the list of Iraqis being sought by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Ibrhaim was number six on the list of 55 most-wanted members of Hussein's government, and his mug shot adorns the king of clubs on the sets of playing cards distributed to soldiers before the war. As one of Hussein's closest confidants, he is believed to have been involved in the brutal suppression of internal dissent and the decision to invade neighboring Kuwait. He held a senior post on a government committee in charge of northern Iraq when chemical weapons were used against the town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 ethnic Kurds.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they believe that after Hussein's government was toppled Ibrahim was actively involved in coordinating insurgent attacks against U.S. forces. But the depth of his role has been open to question because of his deteriorating health.
Abdul-Latif said Ibrahim had gone to the clinic for leukemia treatment. "He's in a very deteriorated state of health," Abdul-Latif told Reuters.
Also on Sunday, a mortar attack killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded 16 at a base west of the Iraqi capital.
Maj. Richard Spiegel of the Army's 13th Corps Support Command said the mortar barrage slammed into Logistical Base Seitz, on Baghdad's western outskirts, around 6 p.m. Names of the dead and wounded were being withheld pending next-of-kin notification.
A car bomb exploded outside an air base used by U.S. forces near Dijiel, about 25 miles north of Baghdad, injuring one American soldier and two Iraqi civilians, the U.S. military said.
In other developments Sunday, a militant group blamed for numerous kidnappings of foreigners in Iraq asked an influential Sunni Muslim clerical group to issue a religious edict on whether kidnapping is justified in the struggle to oust foreigners from the country. In a tape broadcast on the al-Arabiya television channel, a masked man identifying himself as a member of Holders of the Black Banners asked for a ruling from the Muslim Scholars' Association and promised that the militants would abide by the organization's position.
Abdel Satar Abdel Jabar, a spokesman for the association, said the clerics would study the request.
"To issue an edict on such a subject is not an easy task. Such a call needs a profound study," he told the Associated Press.
Two French journalists being held hostage by another militant group remained in captivity on Sunday, despite intense diplomatic efforts by the French government to free them. French officials had expressed optimism late last week that the journalists would be freed in a matter of days.