The U.S. capture of Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed "Chemical Ali" for his past use of poison gas on civilians, puts one of the most notorious members of Saddam Hussein's former regime behind bars. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at al-Majid's history and the likelihood he will be put on trial in Iraq for crimes against humanity.
Prague, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Chemical Ali" is a sobriquet Ali Hassan al-Majid did not receive from the Western press.
He was given it on the streets of Iraq as a curse for his infamous use of poison gas against civilians in 1988. That was when, entrusted by his cousin Saddam Hussein with punishing Iraqi Kurd leaders for struggling for autonomy during the Iran-Iraq war, he organized a scorched-earth campaign to punish the entire Iraqi Kurd region.
Al-Majid called his campaign "Anfal" -- an Arabic word for "the spoils of war" that appears in a Koranic verse about stripping an enemy of his property. And by all accounts, his operations in northern Iraq were just that: an orgy of killing, evicting people from their homes, and looting.
Umri Shah, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in London, says that her organization has extensively documented what it calls al-Majid's "masterminding" of the Anfal operation, which continued until 1990.
"Human Rights Watch has documented al-Majid's record regarding human rights violations. Al-Majid masterminded the genocidal 1988 campaign that resulted in the murder or disappearance of some 100,000 Kurds. Human Rights Watch was able to access some 18 tons of recorded documents that we went through and that [give] very detailed accounts of instances of disappearances, killings during this time."
To demonstrate his ruthlessness -- and contempt for international conventions -- al-Majid ordered a gas attack in March 1988 that killed some 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja. That fulfilled a threat he made in a taped speech a year earlier when he said: "I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community?"
But if "Chemical Ali" became notorious worldwide for his gas attacks on Iraq's Kurdish citizens, he is no less well remembered for what he did in the south of the country just a few years later, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
That war, in which a U.S.-led coalition drove Hussein's forces out of Kuwait and briefly advanced into southern Iraq, ended with a widespread rebellion among Iraq's majority Shi'a population. Hussein called on al-Majid to suppress the revolt and, again, he launched an operation of massacres that ignored all the rules of war.
Nobody knows how many Shi'a were killed in southern Iraq, but the number is believed to be at least in the tens of thousands. The dead are only now being dug up from mass graves by relatives who, with the collapse of the Hussein regime in April, are finally able to look for them. Videos of al-Majid's operations in the south -- taken with his approval -- show him personally executing prisoners by shooting them in the head and kicking others in the face as they sit on the ground.
Ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq earlier this year, Hussein appointed al-Majid as his top commander for the defense of the south and many observers saw it as a signal Baghdad would use poison gas against advancing coalition troops. That did not happen but Washington and London took the threat seriously enough to equip all soldiers with full-body chemical and biological suits.
For its part, the coalition tried unsuccessfully to assassinate al-Majid in early April with an air strike on a private villa in downtown Al-Basrah, which he was believed to have commandeered as a temporary residence. The bombing -- one of a series of so-called "decapitation strikes" aimed at eliminating Hussein and his top leadership -- killed at least 13 people, many of them children in the neighboring house.
U.S. forces gave no details of where they finally arrested al-Majid. But General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Army's Central Command in charge of Iraq, said that al-Majid may have played a role in helping organize Hussein loyalists continuing to resist the occupation. He told reporters yesterday: "I would say that 'Chemical Ali' has been active in some ways in influencing people...around him in a regional way."
With al-Majid finally in custody, U.S. officials must now decide how to put him on trial. The U.S.-appointed Governing Council for Iraq has said it is prepared to conduct war crimes proceedings against former regime members and Washington is reported to favor that solution.
The American official in charges of war crimes issues, Ambassador Pierre Richard Prosper, said in April that Washington believes trials of former regime officials "must have some indigenous roots to reinstate the rule of law" in the country. The most likely formula is that the accused would be tried by of a panel of Iraqi judges screened for any ties to the former regime. The panel also could include judges from other countries in the Arab world.
But that formula worries some human rights groups which -- while fully condemning the former Iraqi regime's record -- still call for guarantees that the defendants receive a fair trial.
Shah of Human Rights Watch put the concerns this way:
"Human Rights Watch feels that it will be very important to have some kind of international participation in any trials conducted to bring to justice the former henchmen of Saddam Hussein to avoid the perception of vengeful or 'victor's' justice."
She also says that human rights groups feel substantial international participation is needed to supply the particular expertise needed to conduct war crimes proceedings. She says few people in Iraq, and indeed the world, have such experience apart from judges and lawyers who already have participated in such trials at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the Rwanda tribunal, or, most recently, in Sierra Leone.
The U.S. is not expected to back any role for the recently formed International Criminal Court (ICC) in trying former Iraqi leaders. Washington has not recognized the ICC because it does not exempt American nationals from possible prosecution. U.S. officials say such an exemption is necessary to assure cases are not brought against American military personnel acting as peacekeepers abroad.