The curious case of Chemical Ali
By Charles McDermid and Rebaz Mahmood
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan - If the rest of the world thought it was a slam
dunk this week for an Iraqi high court to slap another death sentence on a
three-time capital punishment loser like Chemical Ali, it was a different story
in the Kurdish town of Halabja.
It wasn't the death by hanging verdict that put off the townsfolk. Most
residents of this sleepy, mountain-shrouded enclave on the Iraq-Iran border
lost loved ones among the some 5,500 locals killed by poison gas on March 16,
1988 - the day a belligerent former motorcycle courier from Tikrit named Ali
Hassan al-Majid gave the order that forever made him "Chemical Ali".
Instead, what riled the town and its prosecutors was that the
former Ba'athist strongman evaded a genocide charge and seems to retain a
certain value in the confounding calculus of Iraqi politics. Worse, his trial
and now-imminent execution may have been co-opted by others to gain votes in
Iraq's critical upcoming election.
Baghdad at the moment is awash with anti-Ba'athist sentiment. A recent
recommendation of the Accountability and Justice Commission to ban 515
politicians from standing in the long-awaited March 7 parliamentary election
threatens to unravel the poll's credibility.
The commission, formerly the De-Ba'athification Commission, says the barred
politicians have ties to the outlawed Ba'ath Party once run by former dictator
Saddam Hussein, Majid's first cousin and longtime benefactor. The commission
was established by the United States in 2003 to enforce a constitutional
mandate that forbids Ba'athists from taking part in politics.
Many of the politicians the commission has recommended to ban, however, belong
to Sunni and secular parties that are challenging the ruling Shi'ite blocs for
seats in parliament. The selection of politicians has drawn charges of cronyism
and political interference. The whole election is now in doubt.
Facing a stiff re-election bid, embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has
wooed Iraq's Shi'ite majority. Some say he has stoked lingering anger for the
Sunni-dominated Ba'ath Party's ruthless subjugation of the Shi'ite and other
Islamic sects and ethnic groups during its roughly three decades in power. (See
Maliki grasping at Shi'ite straws Asia Times Online, January, 12,
2010.) Critics say labeling someone a "Ba'athist" is a thinly veiled attempt to
When more than 100 people died in August after suicide bombers rammed trucks
loaded with explosives into the Foreign Ministry and near the Finance Ministry,
Baghdad quickly blamed two senior Ba'athist operatives.
Fear that the political expulsions will nullify the election and hinder a US
troop withdrawal planned for later this year, has Washington scrambling.
According to reports, US Vice President Joe Biden contacted senior Iraqi
officials with a proposal that would postpone the slate of proposed bans and
allow all Iraqis to take part in the election. Speaking in Irbil on Wednesday,
American ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said events had reached "... a
very sensitive moment in Iraq".
"It is my view that Ba'athism in Iraq is dead, but its toxicity - the poison
associated with Ba'athism - continues to affect and infect the current
political climate," Hill said. "What is very important is not to allow
anti-Ba'athism to be used for political purposes."
Against this backdrop came last Sunday's verdict of a fourth death sentence for
Majid - the most notorious and well known ex-Ba'athist alive today; a man whose
name is synonymous with the worst brutalities of the Saddam era.
Now, after an abrupt end to an often-stalled, two-year trial, Maliki has
reportedly pledged to hang Majid before the election. The stage is set for
Iraq's most high-profile execution since Saddam Hussein in 2006. According to
news reports at the time, the rapid execution of Saddam boosted Maliki's
fragile authority among his fractious Shi'ite supporters but angered many
The sequence of the latest events has not been lost on political analysts.
"There is no chance that such a verdict was spontaneous in terms of its
timing," said Dr Hashim Hasan, professor of political science at Baghdad
University. "There is no spontaneity in Iraqi politics; every move has effects,
reasons and results. There is no doubt the dominant political blocs will
benefit from this verdict at this time. The question is, how much?"
A measure of Chemical Ali
Born in Tikrit in 1941, Majid was a member of the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir
tribe. His childhood, like Saddam's, was reportedly marked by little money or
He began as a Ba'ath party security chief in the 1970s. Around this time,
according to journalist Patrick Cockburn, "his evident viciousness made him
useful in jobs in which unrelenting and merciless cruelty were considered an
Majid had no shortage of work. Among his many positions under Saddam, who came
to power in 1979, was spy chief, minister of interior and governor of Kuwait
during Iraq's short-lived occupation in 1991.
From a public relations standpoint, Majid didn't do himself many favors. He
once bragged of using bulldozers to bury the families of insurgents, and when
pressed on killing 180,000 Kurds, he bristled and put the number closer to
Majid became known as the enforcer within Saddam's inner circle and even
family. In Cockburn's words, he is a "diabetic with a menacing rodent-like face
and a straggly mustache, [who] suffered from hypertension and spinal
Majid earned his first of four death sentences for committing genocide in the
Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s. After the Kurdish Peshmerga
forces reclaimed Kirkuk in the uprising of 1991, recordings were found of
Majid's meetings that left no question of his guilt. In one tape he famously
said, "I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say
anything? F**k them! The international community and those who listen to them."
Majid was charged with crimes against humanity and sentenced to death a second
time for a massacre of Shi'ite civilians in 1991. He received a second crimes
against humanity verdict, and third death sentence, for a brutal crackdown on
Shi'ite protesters in Baghdad and Najaf in 1999.
Majid has been in custody ever since he was captured by US forces shortly after
the 2003 invasion. His execution for the earlier charges has been held because
former Ba'athist defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie, once a popular Sunni
leader, was sentenced to death with him in the Anfal case. Iraqi Vice President
Tariq al-Hasemi and President Jalal Talabani have refused to sign Taie's
The case that resulted in a fourth death sentence on Sunday was for the gas
attack on Halabja, believed to be the most devastating use of chemical weapons
ever unleashed on civilians. Majid ordered canisters containing mustard gas and
nerve agents Tabun, Sarin and VX to bombed on the town, killing as many as
5,500 mostly women and children.
A Human Rights Watch investigation reported, "Dead bodies, human and animal,
littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of
their cars, Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically before collapsing
... Those who had been directly exposed to the gas found their symptoms
worsened as the night wore on. Many children died along the way and were
abandoned where they fell."
Fishy judicial timing
Bariq Hama Sidiq was in Halabaja during the gas attack. He lost 23 relatives
Today, he runs a small law office above an aquarium shop overlooking the
sprawling Sulaimaniyah bazaar. For the past two years he's been the deputy
prosecutor in the Halabja case against Majid and three other defendants.
By Sidiq's count, the court had met 35 times since the trial began in 2008.
Hundreds of prosecuting documents were drawn up and dozens of witnesses,
including foreign journalists, were called to testify. In an interview last
month, he expressed confidence in the case his legal time had prepared.
"All we were waiting for was to hear the verdict, but unexpectedly the head of
the trial was replaced," said Sidiq, who said he had no evidence of political
interference. The announcement of the new judge was not explained, but the pace
of the trial quickly sped up. In his first session, the new judge announced on
Sunday as the day the verdict would be announced.
The team, led by chief prosecutor Goran Adham, was asking for the death penalty
against Majid, but more importantly, a charge of genocide that might facilitate
a civil case for compensation to the victims and victims' families in Halabja.
When the verdict of crimes against humanity was announced - giving Majid the
death penalty and the co-defendants, including Taie, 15 years in jail - Sidiq
and Adham immediately vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court for the genocide
verdict and stronger sentences for all but Majid.
"We feel the rulings are not equal to the chemical attacks. We believe the
attacks on March 16, 1988, were genocide. The attacks were a massacre. The
court did not deliver that ruling, but we hope the appeal by the lawyers will
lead to more severe sentences and a genocide charge," said Lugman Abdulqadr,
head of the Halabja Chemical Attack Victims Association, who was in the
courtroom for the verdict.
As it stands, the prosecutors' appeal will be filed within days but the
appellate process could take months.
"We're not happy with the verdict and have asked for an appeal. We want
genocide and tougher punishments on the criminals," said Adham. "As for
Chemical Ali, he admitted his crimes and we had lots of evidence to back it up.
He got what he deserves."
With the lawyers left to wonder about the genocide charge, and subsequent civil
cases for victims' compensation, there is no doubt among analysts about how the
trial will be applied as political capital.
"The death sentence verdict on Ali Hassan al-Majid in the Halabja case will be
used by Prime Minster Maliki in his election campaign," said Hadi Jelow Mari, a
political analyst with Baghdad's al-Mada newspaper. "Maliki will say to the
Iraqi street that it was he who carried out the execution of Saddam Hussein and
that he continues to enforce strict measure against Saddam's former Ba'athist
Charles McDermid is an editor for the Institute of War and Peace
Reporting in Iraq. Rebaz Mahmood is a freelance journalist based in