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Iraq: Mild Reaction To Chemical Ali's Sentence Is Telling

  • Sumedha Senanayake

http://gdb.rferl.org/8D38982E-5FD9-4A45-B9BF-99ECAE1043A3_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/8D38982E-5FD9-4A45-B9BF-99ECAE1043A3_mw800_mh600.jpg Chemical Ali's death sentence did not evoke the same reactions as when Saddam Hussein was sentenced (file photo) (epa) June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The death sentence handed down by the Iraqi High Tribunal on June 24 against Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, for his role in the Anfal campaign elicited a surprising response among those who both loathed and applauded him.

In contrast to the near circus-like atmosphere that swept Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish communities after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, the sentencing of al-Majid, the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party and Hussein's cousin, for his role in the 1987-88 campaign against the Kurds was greatly subdued.

This shift in Iraqis' reactions to the sentencing is perhaps a telling indication of where the collective Iraqi psyche is four years after the fall of Baghdad.

Kurds Welcome Verdict, Quietly

Reactions to the death sentence fell along the predictable sectarian and ethnic lines, though it was fairly muted on both sides. In Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, reports indicated that Kurds overwhelmingly welcomed the sentence, although the intensity of their joy paled in comparison to the death sentence Hussein received in the Al-Dujayl trial, when Kurds flooded the streets in jubilation.

Even statements by prominent Kurdish officials regarding the sentences were scarce. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih issued a statement on June 25 hailing the verdicts in the Anfal trial, but also used the occasion to underscore the Kurds' desire for federalism, the Kurdish daily "Aso" reported.

"Chemical Ali and other criminals should become an example for all those thinking of persecuting and threatening our people," Salih said. "The occasion of sentencing the criminals gives us the opportunity to insist on our legitimate struggle for a democratic and federal Iraq that can secure the country's future, so that the dreadful days of Anfal, chemical bombardments, and mass graves will not occur again," he added.

However, there were mixed reactions in the Kurdish town of Halabjah, where 5,000 people were believed to have been gassed in 1988. Those killings were not part of the Anfal trial, but will be the focus of a separate trial to be scheduled at an unspecified date.

Many residents of Halabjah fear that with the conclusion of the Anfal trial, combined with the execution of Hussein and scheduled execution of al-Majid, they may never get to see justice. Muhammad Faraj, the director of the Halabjah Chemical Victims Association, worried that the atrocities committed in Halabjah may never fully be recognized, slate.com reported on June 25. "We see ourselves as martyrs because we see ourselves as already dead," Faraj said. "We are dead because the world does not recognize our suffering."

Sunnis Condemn It, Quietly

On the other hand, Sunnis were even more subdued. There were no reports of the pro-Ba'athist demonstrations or confrontations with security forces that were reported after Hussein's sentencing. In fact, the lack of any visible unease within the Sunni community may be an indication that many believed that the verdict and the sentencing were a forgone conclusion.

Saddam Hussein inspired more passionate reactions (epa file photo)

After the fiasco that ensued following Hussein's execution, where an illicit video showed the former Iraqi leader being verbally taunted by several guards, and the "botched" hanging of former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Sunnis may have come to feel resigned to being victims of a vindictive government.

However, Ba'ath Party spokesman Abu Muhammad issued a statement on Al-Jazeera television on June 24 depicting al-Majid and his co-defendants as courageous men who sacrificed much to defend Iraq, but were now being sentenced to death on unjust charges by an illegal court. "This trial is invalid because it has taken place under an unjust occupation of Iraq and the destruction of the state. The great crime is the crime of occupying Iraq," Muhammad said.

The anger expressed by the Ba'ath Party is all the more biting, considering that the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has yet to make significant moves toward revising the de-Ba'athification law that could allow thousands of ex-Ba'athists to return to their jobs. Many U.S. and Sunni officials believe this would give a boost to national reconciliation by enticing former Ba'athists, who are believed to form the backbone of the nationalist insurgency, to lay down their weapons and enter the political process.

Muted Coverage Reflects The Times

Coverage of the Anfal sentencing was fairly muted in the Iraqi press, particularly when compared with the media frenzy when Hussein was sentenced to death in November 2006. Reports from the courtroom indicated that only a few Iraqi journalists were present when the Anfal sentencing was read, and none from Iraq's Kurdish papers.

While the Kurdish press lauded the death sentence handed down to al-Majid and his two co-defendants, the collective euphoria that was expressed in the Shi'ite and Kurdish communities after Hussein's sentencing in the Al-Dujayl trial was clearly absent.

One reason for this is the absence of Hussein, himself a defendant in the Anfal trial, who was executed in December. Hussein, more than any other single figure, came to symbolize the ruthlessness and repression of the former regime in the eyes of the Kurds and Shi'a. And for them, his absence from the latter stages of the trial and the sentencing perhaps made many in those communities lose interest.

Indeed, the laborious trial, which lasted nearly 10 months, may have taken its toll on the interest within the Kurdish and Shi'ite communities. Following the Al-Dujayl trial that lasted over a year, Iraqis may have become weary of the spectacle of prominent figures of the former regime being on trial.

However, a more cynical reading may be that Iraqis, in general, have other more pressing issues to deal with, namely the daily carnage and chaos that plagues their country. Even Iraqis, who were once persecuted by the former Ba'athist regime, are now perhaps too worn down by the seemingly unending cycle of suicide bombings and sectarian killings to be concerned about obtaining justice for crimes that were committed by the former government.
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