A Baathist website reported his death on Saturday, but another website, also purporting to carry statements from the banned party, maintained that Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri was alive and apologised for the death report. A relative in Iraq said the family was unsure.

"In the pure land of Iraq, the soul of comrade Izzat Ibrahim returned to God on Friday at dawn," one statement said. It described al-Duri as the "field commander of the heroic resistance" and was signed by the Baath party's "political media and publishing office".

That statement appeared on Saturday on a website thought to be run by Salah al-Mukhtar, who was Saddam's ambassador to India and head of the External Information Department.

The death announcement appeared to confirm an email announcing the death of al-Duri that circulated a day earlier. He was thought to be at least 62.

But a later statement on a second website said: "We apologise from our brothers and sisters for publishing a statement announcing the death of brother Izzat al-Duri, may God extend his life".

"We have learned a while ago from the dear brother Salah al-Mukhtar that the announcement of death was baseless and that warrior Izzat al-Duri is fine."

Announcement still posted

However, the website thought to be maintained by al-Mukhtar was still running the announcement that al-Duri had died.

Graffiti in on Saturday reads:
Long live the hero Izzat Ibrahim

Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Ibrahim, nephew and son-in-law of al-Duri, said he had no independent confirmation of the death, but some people close to Saddam outside the country were treating it as accurate.

Al-Duri, born in 1942, had been a close associate of Saddam throughout his rule, and officially was the No 2 man in Iraq's ruling hierarchy when the Baath government collapsed as US troops occupied Baghdad in April 2003. He was No 6 on the American "deck of cards" of most-wanted fugitives.