BAGHDAD — Iraqi officials said they were carrying out DNA tests on a body they believe could belong to a top aide of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Izzat Ibrahim Douri was reportedly killed during fighting against Sunni insurgent forces, senior Iraqi officials claimed Friday, in a potential blow to factions opposing the government in Baghdad.
But previous reports over the years about Douri’s death have proved wrong. Photos purporting to show his body circulated on social media but not from any official sources.
Iraqi officials said it was unclear when DNA results could be released.
If true, however, the killing of Douri could mark a significant gain against Sunni factions that have made apparent alliances with the Islamic State against the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Abadi met with President Obama on Tuesday in Washington and appealed for more military help in confronting an array of factions, including long-standing Sunni militants, and the rising influence of the Islamic State.
In the northern city of Irbil, in the semiautonomous Kurdish region, a car bomb exploded Friday outside a cafe near the U.S. Consulate in a rare attack in the area. There was no immediate word on casualties, but a U.S. official said no consulate personnel or guards were hurt, the Associated Press reported.
Douri — the “king of clubs” in the deck of playing cards issued to U.S. troops seeking key members of Hussein’s regime — has been on the run since 2003 and is believed to be a top figure among Sunni insurgents including tribal fighters and others loyal to Hussein’s former Baathist regime.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said Friday that he was unable to corroborate reports of Douri’s death.
“We’re certainly aware of who he is and the role he played within the Hussein regime,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
Ryder referred to Douri as an “HVI,” a military acronym for “high-value individual,” but declined to comment further on his current importance or what role he was playing in the insurgency. Ryder also declined to say whether the U.S. military had targeted Douri in recent months with airstrikes or other operations.
Douri was reported to have been killed during clashes near Tikrit, Hussein’s home town and the site of recent battles to drive out Islamic State militants and their allies, according to Ahmed al-Karim, head of the Salahuddin provincial council. The province includes Tikrit.
“We are checking the DNA and fingerprints,” Karim said in an interview.
A senior commander, Gen. Haider al-Basri, told Iraqi state TV that Douri and a group of bodyguards were killed by gunfire while riding in a convoy but gave no other details.
Although there have been incorrect reports of Douri’s death before, the latest claim included photos on social media that purport to show a body with a red beard and moustache — distinctive features of Douri’s during his years in Hussein’s inner circle.
Shiite militias Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization and Kitaeb Hezbollah all claimed responsibility Friday for killing the militant believed to be Douri.
Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Shiite-led Badr Organization, told The Washington Post that the body was being transported to Baghdad for DNA analysis and fingerprint checks.
“It looks very much like him,” he said.
Ameri said the man killed was part of a group that came under fire near the town of Alam, just outside Tikrit. He said the suspected former Hussein aide was killed by Sunni fighters from Alam who had joined the Badr Organization.
“We very much hope it will be him,” Ameri said.
Douri, a top Hussein adviser on security affairs, has been the highest-ranking fugitive from the Hussein era and is believed to be among the Sunni militia chiefs who have made recent alliances with the Islamic State.
“This means we’ve killed one of the main leaders of this organization [the Islamic State], and it will affect them very badly,” said Jassim al-Jabbara, head of the security committee for Salahuddin. “If it’s really him, it means he was hiding in Tikrit the whole time.”
Douri, apparently protected by Sunni tribes, has managed to evade manhunts by U.S. and Iraq forces while occasionally releasing statements and videos calling for resistance against Iraqi Shiites and others.
In January 2013, a nearly hour-long video purported to show Douri encouraging “nationalist and Islamic forces” to rise up against Shiite groups, which he claimed were directed by Iran. In the early 1990s, Douri helped crush Shiite rebellions after Iraqi forces were driven from Kuwait.
Some Sunni groups have continued their fight against the Baghdad government or thrown support behind the Sunni-led Islamic State as the extremists made stunning gains last year in Iraq and Syria.
Sunnis in Iraq were favored under Hussein but have complained about widespread discrimination under the Shiite-dominated governments that replaced him after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Murphy reported from Washington. Craig Whitlock in Washington and Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.