He later commanded Iraq's military occupation of Kuwait that led to the Gulf War in which a U.S.-led troops forced the Iraqis to withdraw. He also led forces that suppressed an uprising in southern Iraq early in 1991 and other campaigns that were notoriously brutal.
Now -- as his trial date grows closer -- new evidence is surfacing that points to al-Majid as being directly culpable in the extrajudicial executions of 120 Iraqi men in mid-1999 in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah. Human Rights Watch says in a 36-page report published today that it has acquired a key document indicating that al-Majid ordered the executions. It listed the victims' names and execution dates and was signed "Commander of the Southern Sector." At the time, that was al-Majid.
Fadi al-Qadi is Human Rights Watch's advocate for the Mideast and the author of the HRW report. In an interview today with RFE/RL from Cairo, he says the group's researchers interviewed dozens of family members and other witnesses to authenticate details of the killings of at least 29 of the listed victims.
"The report also lists the names of people that have been identified on the execution lists and the situations in which they were arrested and then disappeared and were later found [to have been] executed by the former Ba'athist officials," he says.
Al-Majid was a lieutenant general and a right-hand man of Hussein. At one point during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he was reported to have been killed. But U.S. troops captured him in December 2003 near his hometown, Tikrit. He has been in solitary confinement since then at Camp Cropper, the U.S. military detention center near the Baghdad airport.
He has been permitted to consult with lawyers since July. But he and other defendants have been subject to interrogation for up to a year.
Al-Majid was the secretary-general of the Northern Bureau of Iraq's Ba'ath Party and held authority over all state agencies in the Kurdish areas during the campaign against the region's Kurds. One of his orders, dated 20 June 1987, directed army commanders to carry out "special bombardments" -- a reference to chemical-weapon use -- "to kill the largest number of persons in prohibited zones."
The acts ascribed to al-Majid, if proven, clearly add up to war crimes under the definitions established by various war crimes courts. But even as evidence appears to be piling up against him, human rights activists are increasingly expressing doubts about the entire legal structure under which he will be tried.
Iraqi authorities have built twin courtrooms in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone. Investigating judges for what is being called the Iraqi Special Tribunal, or IST, have been preparing dossiers and gathering evidence for the prosecution.
Another international human rights organization, London-based Amnesty International, told RFE/RL today that it has deep concerns about whether any of the defendants can get a fair trial considering the way the court is currently structured.
"Amnesty's concern regarding the statutes of the Iraqi Special Tribunal include the fact that, basically, the tribunal would use, as a punishment, the death penalty," says Said Boumedouha, Amnesty's researcher for the Middle East. "Another concern is the fact that the Iraqi judges have -- we've said this so many times now -- really lack the experience in dealing with [such] complex issues [as war crimes and genocide]. Another concern is that the statutes would use some of the Iraqi legislation, the criminal procedures code, which basically, in a way, accepts the use of ill treatment and torture."
Human Rights Watch's al-Qadi concurs. He says his organization has appealed to Iraqi authorities to drop the death penalty as a possible sentence, to outlaw evidence gathered through the mistreatment of suspects, to seek international expert guidance, and to assure that the trials are fully open and monitored by independent experts, among other reforms. He says it is uncertain whether such appeals have had any effect.
"We still have not seen those concerns to be addressed by the Iraqi government, and we still think that they should consider seriously amending the procedure of the IST itself and to use, to a large extent, international expertise," al-Qadi says.
Al-Qadi's colleague, HRW's Washington director, Joe Stork, said today in a statement that the first trial should be "an opportunity to prove that justice rules in the new Iraq, not vengeance."