Putting "Chemical Ali" on Trial

Baghdad

Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali”, will be the first of the senior lieutenants of Saddam Hussein to stand trial, the Iraqi Defence Minister said yesterday.

“In the next few days we will have the trial of Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of the closest followers of Saddam Hussein,” Hazim al-Shalaan said. He later added that the trial might start in mid-January, before elections set for the end of next month.

Mr Majid, a cousin of the former Iraqi leader, was notorious for his cruelty even in a regime specialising in brutality. He was in charge of the infamous scorched-earth campaign in Kurdistan in 1988-89, when 100,000 Kurds were killed.

A former army driver and one of Saddam’s inner circle, Mr Majid owed his promotion to his utter loyalty to the Iraqi leader. He was ruthless as governor of Kuwait in 1990 and helped suppress the Shia uprising the following year.

The announcement of the trial is evidently a pre-election ploy by the government of the interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Iraqi officials and diplomats said there would be preliminary hearings before an investigative judge but not a full trial.

Mr Allawi began his election campaign yesterday by presenting a list of 240 candidates for the 275-member National Assembly. His strategy is to portray the main Shia list, the United Iraq Alliance, announced last week, as being too clerical and close to Iran.

Mr Shalaan claimed at an opening press conference that Iran and Syria were fomenting the insurgency in Iraq. He said intelligence agencies from both countries had united with former security men and the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi “to run criminal operations in Iraq.”

The allegations against Iran may resonate with Iraqi voters since implanting suspicions of Iran was a centre-piece of Saddam’s propaganda. It is also true that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shia parties, was formerly based in Iran and fought against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has great influence in southern Iraq.

Mr Shaalan said the commander of a resistance group called the Jaish Mohammed arrested in Fallujah had confessed that the “key to terrorism is in Iran, which is the number one enemy of Iraq”. By attacking his opponents as cats’ paws of Iran and Syria, Mr Allawi will try to avoid being portrayed as a US puppet himself.

The chronic insecurity of Baghdad was underlined by the secrecy in which Mr Allawi’s press conference was held. Journalists were first told to go to the convention centre in the Green Zone at 8 am where they waited for more than an hour. They were then told Mr Allawi was at a club on the other side of Baghdad. Many foreign journalists declined to use the official-looking buses provided to get there, since these were an obvious target for insurgents.

It is very doubtful whether the election will happen in the Sunni Muslim provinces of Iraq. Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and head of the Independent Democratic Gathering, said he would lead a list. He added that widespread abstentions could make the election illegitimate and his party might abstain at the last moment.

He said: “We feel that the disenfranchisement of any segment of the Iraqi population or any part of the Iraqi population will really give a false impression and give a distorted picture of the National Assembly.”

Mr Allawi may lose votes over the shortage of electricity and fuel. In Baghdad yesterday, the electricity was on for two hours, then for four. Ayham al-Sammarai, the electricity minister, said: “God is not helping us. I cannot do anything because there is no security.” He said insurgents had destroyed the switching gear at an important power station.

o A bomb exploded near the offices of a senior Shia cleric in the holy city of Kerbala yesterday, killing eight people and wounding 32. One of the injured was Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalai, a cleric regarded as close to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shia leader.

 

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).

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