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Ali Hassan al-Majid was the Heinrich Himmler of Iraq. After Saddam Hussein appointed him the all-powerful overlord of northern Iraq in March 1987 he oversaw the murder of more than 180,000 Kurds in just over a year. "The armed forces must kill any human being or animal present," he decreed.
It was for this crime of genocide against the Kurds that Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali", and two other defendants were yesterday sentenced to death by hanging by a court in Baghdad. A cousin of Saddam Hussein who had been a motorcycle dispatch rider, Majid acted as the zealous henchman of the Iraqi leader in many of his most notorious acts of cruelty and repression.
"You gave orders to the troops to kill Kurdish civilians and put them in severe conditions," said the judge, Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa, as he passed sentence on Majid. "You subjected them to wide and systematic attacks using chemical weapons and artillery. You led the killing of Iraqi villagers. You restricted them to their areas, burned their orchards, killed their animals. You committed genocide."
Sinister heaps of broken stones and bricks dot the Kurdish countryside marking the places where villages and hamlets were destroyed and 1.5 million Kurds killed or deported. Less easy to find are the mass graves all over Iraq filled with the bodies of men, women and children who were lined up and machine-gunned. The slaughter was not as all-embracing as Hitler’s onslaught on Jews but it was comparable to mass killings of civilians committed by the Nazis in Poland, Ukraine and Russia or by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
There is no doubt about Majid’s responsibility for the massacres before and during the notorious "Operation Anfal" in 1987. Many of his telephone calls and meetings with senior officers were recorded by the participants and the tapes discovered by Kurdish resistance forces when they captured Kirkuk in the uprising of 1991. In one meeting with leading Iraqi officials in 1988, he vows in his distinctive, high-pitched, whiny voice: "I will kill them all [Kurds] with chemical weapons," he says. " Who is going to say anything? Fuck them! The international community, and those who listen them."
On 16 March 1988, Iraqi forces fired poison gas shells into Halabja, a town that had been captured by Kurdish and Iranian forces. Its unsuspecting people began to smell the odor of apples and garlic. Human Rights Watch reported: ‘Dead bodies – human and animal – littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars. Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically before collapsing … Those who has been directly exposed to the gas found their symptoms worsened as the night wore on. Many children died along the way and were abandoned where they fell."
In village after village gas was used to kill civilians. In Halabja alone 5,000 people died. But Majid had over-rated the revulsion over these mass killings among leaders of the international community. Britain expressed anxiety and grave concern about allegations over the use of chemical weapons but promptly doubled the export credit facility available to Iraq.
The US sought to implicate Iran in the use of poison gas. Kurdish claims that they were the victims of genocide were dismissed as exaggerated or politically inconvenient by Western governments. It was several years before Human Rights Watch was able to confirm that the mass killings were just as extensive as the Kurds said they were.
Torture, massacre and deportations had been used against the Kurds since Saddam came to power and before, but Ali Hassan al-Majid set up a several-stage system of genocide. District by district, people were subjected to heavy artillery fire and poison-gas attacks. When males were rounded up they were killed either immediately or later. Those who disappeared were executed. In some cases, the civilian population was promised a pardon to lure them to their deaths. Survivors were forced to live in specially built villages and towns where they could be watched by the secret police.
Majid, gloried in his reputation for merciless brutality. He once quoted Saddam Hussein as counselling him to assist the families of insurgents but said: "No, I will bury them with bulldozers."
In his defense at his trial, Majid said that tape recordings of him speaking of deporting and exterminating the Kurds was exaggerated language to intimidate them into giving up their resistance. "All the words used by me, such as ‘deport them’ or ‘wipe them out’, were only for psychological effect," he claimed. When Kurdish emissaries spoke to him in 1991 of killing 180,000 Kurds he bridled at the allegation and said the real figure was closer to 100,000.
His defense, and that of his co-defendants, was that Anfal started during the Iran-Iraq war and the Kurdish resistance was allied to Iran. Along with Majid the former defence minister General Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai was also sentenced to death for using of chemical weapons against civilians. The deputy director of operations for the Iraqi army, Hussein Rashid Mohammed, was also sentenced to be hanged. "God bless our martyrs," he said. Long live the brave Iraqi army. Long live Iraq. Long live the Baath party and long live Arab nations."
Majid was always the ever-loyal and obsequious lieutenant of the Iraqi leader whose paternal cousin he was. Born in Tikrit in 1941, he was a member, like Saddam, of the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe whose members filled the crucial security posts of the Baath regime. He was wholly dependant on the leader and his evident viciousness made him useful in jobs in which unrelenting and merciless cruelty were considered an asset.
Having been a motorcycle messenger, Majid started his political career as head of the Security Office in the mid-1970s. When Saddam presided over a famous meeting of the Baath party in 1979 during which he had senior party members dragged off to their deaths Majid is seen on a video film standing behind him. "What you have done in the past was good," he says unctuously. "What you will do in the future is good. But there’s this one small point. You have been too gentle, too merciful."
Majid was effectively the family enforcer for Saddam’s inner circle though there were other well-qualified contenders for this position. A diabetic with a menacing-rodent like face and a straggly moustache, he suffered from hypertension and spinal infections. He was reliant on Saddam but was never a rival for the leadership himself.
Though a cousin of Saddam, he was out-ranked in the family hierarchy by the half-brothers of the leader up to their fall from grace in 1986. In the 1990s, it was Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay who were next in line to Saddam.
After giving up the leadership of the Northern Bureau of the Baath in 1988, Majid was made governor of Kuwait after its conquest by Iraq in August 1990. Though Iraq claimed Kuwait was its long-lost 19th province, the Iraqi forces under Majid behaved as if they were on a Bedouin raid, sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loot to Baghdad.
After Saddam Hussein’s catastrophic defeat in Kuwait in 1991 Majid showed his real talents again. As rebellions exploded in Kurdistan and Shia southern Iraq, Saddam turned to him and his nephew Hussein Kamel who was also Saddam’s son-in-law. On 5 March he made the 50-year-old Majid his interior minister.
A captured video film shows Majid in action against Shia rebels. It appears to have been made to intimidate anybody contemplating resistance to the regime by showing the fate of those who did. Majid is seen upbraiding a helicopter pilot going to attack a bridge saying: "Don’t come back until you are able to tell me that you have burnt them; and if you haven’t burnt them, don’t come back."
Joined by a Baathist leader called Mohammed Hamza al-Zubeidi, later prime minister of Iraq, who also had an unsavoury reputation for brutality, they kick and slap prisoners lying on the ground. Majid smokes as he interrogates the prisoners saying of one man: "Don’t execute this one. He will be useful to us." Beside him soldiers, from an elite unit, shouted "pimp" and "son of a whore" at another prisoner.
Not even members of Majid’s family were safe from him. In 1995, his nephews Hussein and Saddam Kamel fled to Jordan. King Hussein granted them political asylum. Suddenly Uday and Ali Hassan al-Majid arrived in Amman to see King Hussein who felt he had no choice but to meet them. Hussein Kamel warned the Jordanians of the murderous proclivities of his relatives, particularly his uncle Ali. He said: "Don’t let his majesty shake hands with this man. He might have something in his hand that might kill him."
After failing to get King Hussein to agree to extradite the men, Uday and Majid demanded that their wives, both daughters of Saddam, be allowed to return to Baghdad with them. Again they were turned down.
When the two exiles unwisely returned to Baghdad the following year, Ali Hassan al-Majid is said to have led the assault on their house and killed them. Hussein Kamel, who had been wounded, staggered out of the house, shouting: "Kill me but not them." He was promptly shot, then Majid stood over the body of his nephew and shot him once in the head, saying: "This is what happens to all who deal with the midget [a reference to the diminutive King Hussein].
In the last years of Saddam’s regime, Majid was eclipsed by Qusay until before the US-led invasion of 2003. The British claimed to have killed him in an air strike in Basra but it turned out to be untrue. He was arrested on 21 August 2003.
Majid was silent as his sentence was read out, saying only: "Thanks be to God." In Kurdistan people rejoiced. "I would never miss this," said Peshtiwan Kamal. "I always heard from my family what these criminals did to my people so I just wanted to see how they would take the verdict and punishment."
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.