A low-profile terrorist, Iyad al-Obeidi (aka Abu Saleh al-Obeidi or Saleh Haifa) is earmarked to succeed the self-proclaimed commander of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, if the latter is in fact proven dead after recent Russian claims of him being killed in mid-June. Until this summer Obeidi had served as head of the Islamic State’s Military Command.
Born into a prominent family hailing from a powerful tribe, Obeidi was raised in Baghdad and attended the Iraqi Military Academy, graduating to join the Iraqi Army at the apex of the 1980-1989 Iran-Iraq War. He learned to hate the Persians while serving in Saddam’s armed forces, seeing friends and comrades returning to Baghdad in wooden caskets, killed in combat against Khomeini’s army. During his military service, Obeidi joined the ruling Baath Party, which was obligatory for professional mobility under Saddam.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Obeidi went underground to avoid arrest after by the US Army, but was eventually apprehended and jailed at Camp Bucca near the border with Kuwait, where he first met Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Upon release he joined the so-called Sunni insurgency that was raging back then, led by Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi, a protégé of Osama Bin Laden.
Seven years ago, he started working with Abu Bakr, who used him and other middle-class Iraqi Sunnis to help tap into “old money” of the Iraqi elite. For years, after all, he and his officer friends had worked with a wide variety of regime-affiliated Iraqi businessmen, connected one way or another to Saddam’s infamous son, Uday. When he came knocking on the community’s doors after 2003, citing a systematic campaign to root them out of society led by Iran-backed figures like then-Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, many did not turn him down, offering money to bankroll “the resistance”, against both the Americans and Iran.
Obeidi knows the internal politics of the Iraqi Sunni community, inside out. He is also very familiar with the terrain, thanks to years of service under Saddam, and could identify the location of weapons, ammunition and money stashed away in cash on the night of the fall of Baghdad. Through men like these, ISIS obtained brand new AKM assault rifles, machine guns, RPG-7s, and surface-to-air missiles from former bases of the Iraqi Army.
When overrunning Mosul Airport in June 2014, for example, these ex-Saddamis helped ISIS to operate Blackhawk helicopters, along with MiG-21 and MiG-23s. They knew where the keys to Iraqi prisons were hidden, and have systematically freed dozens of ex-officers held in jail. Forty-seven prisoners, for example, were rescued from the Tikrit Prison in September 2012. Automatically, these released prisoners joined ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In July 2013 alone, they released 500 prisoners from the Abu Ghraib Prison, part of a campaign to bust into eight jails across Iraq, called “Breaking the Walls.”
These ex-Baathists were experienced soldiers, well trained in warfare, communications, and discipline. In the 1990s, Saddam had prepared them to fight off either an Iranian invasion of Iraq or a new Shiite uprising. An entire underground system was created, with tunnels, safe houses, arms caches, and secret hideouts, which they made use of after Saddam’s fall. They knew how to fight and when to retreat in battle, minimizing losses in arms and lives, explaining why the death toll of ISIS was much lower than other jihadi groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria.
Obeidi’s other trait is the tribe he hails from, the Obeidis, one of the largest and most influential in Iraq, which has influential branches in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait. They emigrated from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq back in the 1700s, and along with the Duleimis, formed the backbone of Saddam’s regime. They were rich, well-connected and could be trusted if they gave a word of honor. He treated them royally and in exchange, they offered him unconditional support. They and the Duleimis fell from grace after 2003, joining Islamic groups and eventually coalescing into ISIS.
Abu Bakr’s wife, Saja al-Duleimi, for example, is related to Iyad al-Obeidi by kinship, partly explaining the bond between the two men during the years 2010-2017. Abu Bakr used both tribes, the Duleimis and the Obeidis, to elevate his standing with the Iraqi Sunni community, as a tribal network was and remains vital for any aspiring Iraqi leader.
Unlike Abu Bakr, however, Obeidi, 54, would only assume the title of “leader” of the Islamic State, if approved by the Shura Council of ISIS, rather than “caliph” as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had proclaimed himself to be back in 2014. For reasons of ancestry and family lineage, he cannot claim descent from the prophet’s family or from the Quraysh tribe of Mecca that produced first generation Muslims. The only school of Islamic jurisprudence that allows a caliph, or sultan, to rule over Muslims even if he is neither from Quraysh nor related to the Prophet is the Hanafi school, but it is too moderate and too liberal for the taste of the entire top command of ISIS — Obeidi included.