U.S. nabs 'Chemical Ali,' says military

Friday, August 22, 2003

By Anthony Shadid ~ The Washington Post

BAGHDAD Iraq -- Ali Hassan al-Majid, a close confidant of former president Saddam Hussein who earned the nickname "Chemical Ali" for overseeing chemical weapons attacks that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds, has been taken into U.S. custody, the second former senior government official reported detained this week, the U.S. military said Thursday.

Al-Majid, Saddam's first cousin and the man accused of engineering some of the government's bloodiest episodes over two decades, was No. 5 on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted officials. His capture leaves 16 still at large, including Saddam and Iraq's senior intelligence chiefs.

The military thought Al-Majid had been killed in an airstrike on April 5 in the southern city of Basra, and British military officials reported recovering his body. But by June, U.S. military officials were saying he might have escaped, and it was widely believed in Baghdad and other cities that he was still alive.

The circumstances of his arrest remained unclear Thursday night. U.S. Central Command said only that he "has been captured and is in custody of coalition forces." Wafiq Samarrai, a former intelligence chief who went into exile in 1995 and returned after the war, said he believed al-Majid was seized on the outskirts of Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad.

The disclosure of his arrest follows the detention Tuesday of former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, another feared aide to Saddam who was captured by Kurdish militiamen in a two-story villa in the northern city of Mosul.

Sense of relief

In contrast to the celebratory gunfire that greeted the deaths of Saddam's sons Odai and Qusai, residents of Baghdad were more subdued about news of al-Majid's capture, which was first aired on Arabic-language news stations. As with the sons' deaths, many said they would not believe al-Majid was in custody until U.S. authorities aired footage of his capture. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a current of relief, even satisfaction, at the arrest of a man whom many consider more brutal than Saddam.

Laith Zuheir, a 25-year-old worker, said he wanted a public trial of al-Majid, then his execution.

"I wish I could torture him with my own hands, shoot him with a pistol, beginning in his leg until I reached his head, so that he could feel the pain of every innocent person he killed," he said. "Then he would see how they suffered."

Al-Majid, a former motorcycle messenger in the Iraqi military who was born in 1941 in the same provincial town as Saddam, was present at some of the bloodiest and most decisive moments of his cousin's 24-year rule.

Rising through the ranks of the Baath Party, in large part on his ferocious loyalty to Saddam, he was said to have taken part in the arrests and executions of 66 people accused of plotting a coup just days after Saddam's inauguration in 1979.

He was interior and defense minister, and was appointed governor of Kuwait soon after Iraq invaded the neighboring emirate in 1990 and declared it the country's 19th province. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, al-Majid was instrumental in the brutal repression of Iraq's Shiite Muslim uprising, and he personally reoccupied Basra, the country's second-largest city. Infamous video footage shows a chain-smoking al-Majid, his paunch stretching his uniform, kicking prisoners on the ground and barking insults.

In 1996, when Saddam's two sons-in-law were coaxed back to Iraq after six months in exile in neighboring Jordan, al-Majid headed the tribal party assigned to execute them. In a 13-hour battle, the sons-in-law were killed, along with their father, two sisters and their children. Iraqis often recount a story -- even as myth, illustrative of al-Majid's reputation -- that after the battle, he put his foot on the neck of one of the sons-in-law and fired the fatal shot into his head.

But his role in crushing Kurdish resistance during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war gave him his greatest notoriety.

In March 1987, Saddam appointed al-Majid, by then a general, as head of his forces in northern Iraq. Al-Majid soon used chemical weapons in two Kurdish cities, earning him his nickname.

In the ensuing months, he launched a scorched-earth campaign known as Anfal. In all, at least 100,000 Kurds -- and perhaps many more -- were killed. Iraqi forces destroyed 2,000 villages, with mass transfers of residents, to create a sanitary cordon.

In the most notorious episode, in March 1988, al-Majid's forces used mustard gas and nerve agents against the town of Halabja near the Iranian border, killing an estimated 5,000 people.

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