Few will mourn the passing of Iraq's Ali Hassan al Majid, whose moniker "Chemical Ali" stood grisly testament to his brutal gassing of thousands of Kurds during his governorship of the country's northern province in the 1980s. Since 2007, three times he avoided the death sentence for his atrocities; only when served with a fourth was he finally brought to justice. One of Iraq's most feared bogeymen, al Majid held office under his cousin Saddam Hussein, to whom he bore a striking physical resemblance. When Saddam came to power in 1979, al Majid proved himself a loyal supporter. His appetite for applying the president's diktat that all who opposed his rule be eliminated ran unchecked. Trade unionists, shopkeepers, Kurds, Shia Muslims; all were mown down in Saddam's name under al Majid's direction.
Born in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit in 1941, al Majid received a basic education and came to serve as his cousin's primary henchman by way of working as a messenger in the Iraqi army. Like Saddam, he was a member of the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe whose members filled the crucial security posts of the Baath regime. As a policy, Saddam staffed his general security with relatives, members of the Tikriti clan, or members of Sunni tribes and he appointed al Majid as its director in 1980 to instil the ideology of the Baath party into the agency.
By 1984, al Majid was in control of the secret police. The next year, he was appointed head of the dreaded general intelligence unit, the Mukhabarat, a vast labyrinth of security organisations pervading all layers of Iraqi society. His infamy derived, in large part, from his orchestration of the genocide in Kurdistan in 1988, known as the Anfal campaign ("spoils of war" in Arabic). It resulted in the death of an estimated 180,000 Kurds over three years. Many were killed, many hideously disfigured by the cocktail of mustard gas and nerve agents that issued over the villages of the north. In the gas attack on the town of Halabja alone, where Kurdish and Iranian forces had made a stand and where the campaign began on March 16, 1988, 5,000 people were said to have died.
Torture, massacre and deportations had long been used against the Kurds, but under al Majid these various methods of oppression were given coherence. The motive of the sustained offensive, stated in his 1987 decree, was to "kill any human being or animal present in these areas". The justification behind it - if the Baathist government had acknowledged that any should exist - was the persistent agitation for autonomy by the Kurds from mainly Arab Iraq. Kurdish forces had staged a guerrilla war against Saddam's military for many years, and allied themselves with the Iranians during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
For as long as Saddam was in power, the Anfal campaign served as a potent example to others of what happened to those who rebelled against Baathist policy. It also illustrated bluntly to the world what Saddam was capable of. The reward for al Majid's butchery was his appointment as minister of local government. Following the annexation of Kuwait in August 1990, he effectively became "governor" of what Baghdad called "Iraq's 19th governorate". At his discretion, the Gulf state was plundered. Kuwait City was stripped of medical and educational supplies, cars and luxury goods were transferred to Iraq, and the Kuwaiti citizens suffered horrific abuses at the hands of the invading forces.
When al Majid was recalled to Baghdad in 1991, Saddam elevated him to the position of minister of the interior, where his first significant task was to quash rebellions by the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north of Iraq that had arisen after the Iraqi army's expulsion from Kuwait. Some 30,000 people were alleged to have been killed or "disappeared" as he dispensed with his task with characteristic bloodthirstiness.
Relieved of his ministerial duties in 1995, having held the position of defence minister for four years, he remained a prominent figure in the Baath party. His mercurial nature was tempered by nothing, even the ties of family allegiance: when two of his nephews, Hussein Kamil al Majid and Saddam Kamil al Majid, Saddam's sons-in-law, defected to Jordan in 1995, al Majid's machinations led to their murder when they unwisely returned to Iraq, lured by the promise of forgiveness. His hand was also thought to be behind the murder of their father, his brother.
In 1998, he returned to Iraq's sensitive border with Kuwait, charged with co-ordinating the intelligence services and the Baath party apparatus in central and southern Iraq. It was a role he assumed again in 2003 on the eve of the US-led invasion. Dispatched to defend Basra, he was killed in an air strike, the UK claimed. In fact, he survived, but was arrested on August 21 that same year. Ali Hassan al Majid was born on November 30, 1941, and died on January 25.
* The National