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'Chemical Ali' didn't act alone

THIS WEEK, a Baghdad court convicted Ali Hassan Majid of genocide against the Kurdish people and sentenced him to hang. The verdict was supported by overwhelming evidence, much of which he never bothered to deny.

I first encountered the handiwork of "Chemical Ali," as he was known, in September 1987 in Kurdistan's empty countryside. Traveling north from Baghdad, we entered Iraq's Kurdish region, and suddenly there were no more villages. In one town, bulldozers were parked near abandoned houses on one side of the road while only rubble remained on the other. Further north, only grave markers, utility poles and abandoned orchards indicated the location of once thriving communities.

Saddam Hussein had put Majid in charge of the Baath Party's Northern Bureau earlier that year, and conferred on him absolute authority to deal with an intractable Kurdish rebellion that had arisen in the midst of Iraq's war with Iran. Majid, who was Hussein's cousin, began by ordering the destruction of villages, ultimately leveling 4,500 of Kurdistan's 5,000 villages by 1990. Also in 1987, Iraq began to use "special ammunition" — chemical weapons — against villages in Kurdistan's remote Balisan Valley. These attacks earned Majid his nickname.

The chemical weapons attacks continued into 1988. On March 16 of that year, Iraqi warplanes dropped a cocktail of chemical weapons on the eastern Kurdish city of Halabja, killing more than 5,000 men, women and children. When I visited the city not long after Kurdish guerrillas recaptured it, residents showed me the basement where 42 people took shelter from the gas — and died as it seeped to the lowest point. Even though several years had passed, the stench was overpowering. At the cemetery, a Kurdish guerrilla stuck his hand in a pile of dirt and pulled out two skulls for me to photograph. They were small, the bones of young children.

Concerned that Iraq might lose the Iran-Iraq war, the Reagan administration deliberately obscured responsibility for Halabja by suggesting that both Iran and Iraq may have had a role in the gassing. But the Iran-Iraq war ended on Aug. 20, 1988, and five days later Hussein and Majid launched chemical weapons attacks on 48 villages in Dahuk province, more than 100 miles from Iran.

There was now no doubt as to who was responsible. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked me to lead a delegation to document the attacks. We interviewed hundreds of survivors camped out along the Iraq-Turkey border. All were eyewitnesses, and most had lost family members, often seeing them drop dead before their eyes.

The Iraqis had deliberately targeted civilians. In at least one instance, Iraqi troops machine-gunned hundreds — maybe as many as 1,000 — of the survivors. While confirming that Iraq had used poison gas on its own people, the Reagan administration thought sanctions too extreme a response, and months later the new administration of President George H.W. Bush actually doubled U.S. aid to Iraq.

After Iraq lost the Persian Gulf War, the Kurds staged an uprising that liberated most of Kurdistan. In the process, they captured 18 tons of Iraqi files, including records of Chemical Ali's Northern Bureau. The Kurdish leaders turned these over to me for safekeeping, and I deposited them in the U.S. National Archives. The documents presented a fuller picture of Chemical Ali's crimes.

Majid declared most of Kurdistan a prohibited zone, and anyone there was deemed a traitor. Ledger books recorded the names, ages and execution dates of thousands of men, women and children caught in these prohibited areas. Other files contained confessions (many with the fingerprints of illiterate shepherds in lieu of signatures) and death certificates. Chemical Ali's Northern Bureau videotaped executions and torture sessions and sent the tapes to Baghdad, apparently to show the home office the fine job it was doing.

When the Kurdish genocide trial began last year in Baghdad, Hussein sat in the dock alongside Chemical Ali. Kurds wanted them both held to account for a genocide that had its roots in the Baathists' decision to define Iraq as an Arab state — to the exclusion of the non-Arab Kurds. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, however, preempted this accounting by rushing Hussein to the gallows after his conviction in a case associated with his own Shiite Arab-based Dawa Party.

Without Hussein present, Majid insisted that he, not Hussein, was responsible for what happened in the north. The Kurds now fear that Arab revisionists will claim that there was no organized, government-sponsored genocide — only the unfortunate acts of a few individuals undertaken during a war. Cheated of justice by a country that committed genocide against them, it is not surprising that most Kurds want nothing to do with Iraq.


Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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