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Iraq's 'Chemical Ali' is put to death for '88 gas attack

BAGHDAD — Even in Saddam Hussein's ruthless regime, "Chemical Ali" stood apart, notable for his role in gassing 5,000 people in a Kurdish village — the deadliest chemical weapons attack ever against civilians.

Ali Hassan al-Majid was hanged Monday, leaving a notorious legacy that stamped Hussein's regime as capable of unimaginable cruelty and brought unsettling questions about Iraq's stockpiles of poison gas and whether it could unleash them again.

The poison gas clouds that struck the village of Halabja began what would become an about-face by Washington — which had supported Hussein during the eight-year war against Iran's new Islamic state in the 1980s but soon became his arch-foe and protector of the Kurds in their northern enclave.

"I want to kiss the hangman's rope," said Kamil Mahmoud, a 40-year-old teacher who lost eight family members in the March 16, 1988, attack in Iraq's Kurdish region.

Photos taken after the Halabja attack showed bodies of men, women, children and animals lying in heaps on the streets.

Majid, 68, was executed about a week after he received his fourth death sentence since facing Iraqi courts after the fall of Hussein. He was one of the last high-profile members of the former regime still on trial in Iraq.

He said "Praise God" in Arabic as the sentence was read Jan. 17.

The only public record of the execution so far are two photos shown on state TV: one of him wearing red prison coveralls and the other of him on the gallows with a black hood. The mood was far more controlled than the taunting reported at Hussein's hanging in December 2006.

Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, gave no other details of the execution. But that didn't stop speculation that three deadly suicide attacks in Baghdad — just before the official announcement of the death — may have been retaliation.

Majid, who bore a striking resemblance to Hussein, carried out some of the regime's bloodiest missions.

In 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was winding down, Majid commanded a scorched-earth campaign known as Anfal to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in the north. An estimated 100,000 people — most of them civilians — were killed over less than a year after Hussein suspected the non-Arab Kurds of siding with Persian Iran during the war. But it was the Halabja attack that riveted the world's attention.

Majid led another sweeping campaign, crushing a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq after Hussein's military was driven from Kuwait in 1991.

Majid was a warrant officer and motorcycle messenger in the army before Hussein's Baath party took power in a 1968 coup. He was promoted to general and served as defense minister from 1991 to '95, as well as a regional party leader.

During the war with Iran in the 1980s, Majid was part of command structure for Iraqi forces, which was accused of using chemical agents on Iranian troops in a conflict that left a total of 1 million dead. Two main formulas were cited by U.N. investigators: mustard gas, an oily liquid first used in World War I whose vapor can remain deadly for days; and tabun, a nerve gas that causes convulsions and paralysis before death.

"For Saddam Hussein, chemical weapons were a force multiplier, a way of countering the Iranian human-wave infantry tactics that were overwhelming Iraqi positions," said Jonathan Tucker, a Washington-based senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

The lingering worries about possible secret stockpiles helped fuel support for the U.S.-led invasion despite no clear evidence and Iraqi claims that it disposed of its chemical weapons, which are banned under international conventions.

During the trials after Hussein's fall, prosecutors played audiotapes of what they said were conversations between Hussein and Majid.

In one of the recordings, Majid was heard vowing to "leave no Kurd (alive) who speaks the Kurdish language."

He claimed he used such language as "psychological and propaganda" tools against the Kurds to frighten them into not fighting government forces.

In a January 2007 court hearing, he said a death sentence did not worry him. "I will face death with open arms," he said.

Three previous death sentences were not carried out in part because Halabja survivors wanted to have their case against him heard.

Iraq's 'Chemical Ali' is put to death for '88 gas attack 01/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 11:11pm]

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