Riddle of `rebel' attack on Saddam's henchman

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SADDAM HUSSEIN once said: "He is worth three divisions to me." He was speaking of Izzat Ibrahim, for 30 years one of his most loyal lieutenants, who was the target of a grenade attack in the city of Kerbala last Sunday where he was representing the Iraqi leader at a religious ceremony.

For many years, Mr Ibrahim's cadaverous face and shock of bright red hair have made him one of the most visible of the Iraqi leadership. Although he suffers from poor health, he conducted the final negotiations with Kuwait in 1990 before the invasion. The following year he played a leading role in crushing the rebellions in Iraq of Shia Muslims and Kurds.

He is very much his master's voice. Born in 1942 in the town of al-Dur, 20 miles north of the city of Samarra on the Tigris, he at first followed his father's trade of selling ice in the broiling Iraqi summer. A Sunni Muslim, as is President Saddam, he joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party and became a member of its ruling Revolution Command Council in 1969, a year after it took power in Baghdad.

His full name is Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, but the Iraqi leadership stopped using names that revealed their origins. This was largely to mask the domination of the elite by families from the Sunni Muslim clans in the centre of the country and from the towns of the upper Tigris and Euphrates.

Saddam Hussein pursued an intricate marriage policy to weld his most important lieutenants to him by blood. In the late Eighties, Mr Ibrahim's daughter Hawazin was briefly married to Uday, Saddam's bloodthirsty son.

President Saddam's trust in his lieutenant was shown in 1979 when he gave him his old job of vice-chairman of the Revolution Command Council when he became chairman and president. He has shown flickers of independence, criticising the treatment of the Kurds in 1987. But it was he who led the government counter-attack that retook Arbil and Kirkuk from Kurdish rebels in 1991.

Since then his health has deteriorated. He is said to suffer from heart trouble and poor digestion. He has been increasingly confined to ceremonial duties and some of his relatives in the army and security services have lost their jobs.

His lack of influence makes the attempt to assassinate him in Kerbala, the holy city of the Shia Muslims on the Euphrates, look somewhat strange. Unlike President's Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay or their cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, he wields little power. It may be that he was simply a target of opportunity for a dissident group seeking vengeance for the slaughter in Kerbala when it was recaptured by the army in 1991.

The heartlands of opposition to the government in southern Iraq are the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf, where the founding martyrs of the Shia faith lie buried. The government has been accused of arranging the assassination of leading Shia clerics. But there is little evidence that the attack on Mr Ibrahim was carried out by an organised opposition group.

Some exiles suspect that the attack was a put-up job by Iraqi security to show the opposition as would-be assassins just when they were winning official backing in London and Washington. It also could be work of an unknown local group - as the shooting of Uday, the last half-successful assassination of a leading member of the regime, in 1996 turned out to be.