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'Chemical Ali' to die for war crimes

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The location was a secret. The timing was unannounced. The prosecutors were not identified as they stood silently in the chilly marble-and-granite courtroom, facing defendants secured in a steel pen.

For all the trepidation surrounding yesterday's televised conclusion of post-invasion Iraq's biggest trial, it was a stooped man with a cane on whom everyone fixated, and he needed no introduction as he appeared to hear his fate.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, dubbed "Chemical Ali" for his role in the gassing of tens of thousands of Kurds in 1987 and 1988, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to death by hanging, the seventh associate of former President Saddam Hussein to face the gallows.

The trial once had captivated Iraqis and was seen as an opportunity to disclose the nation's violent past fully in the name of national reconciliation. Ten months and more than 80 witnesses later, though, the rigorous security surrounding the sentencing and the reactions of people who followed the case showed how little reconciliation has been achieved.

Many Kurds want autonomy from Iraq and are demanding that a referendum on heavily Kurdish-populated areas joining the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan be held despite resistance from Sunni Arabs and the Shiite-led government.

A proposal to allow members of Hussein's once-ruling Baath Party to return to government and military positions also is stalled. Those involved in negotiating the issues, both of them White House benchmarks for bringing order to Iraq, say it is unlikely that there will be agreements soon.

The legacy of the Baath Party was clear inside the court, where two of al-Majid's co-defendants yelled objections as the judge announced the sentences and in the cafes and shops where Iraqis heard the news.

Al-Majid was one of six defendants remaining from the Anfal trial. The seventh, Hussein, was hanged in December after being convicted in a separate 1980s massacre against Shiites in Dujail. The others were Hussein Rashid Muhammed, Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Sabir Abdul Aziz Al-Douri, Farhan Mutlak Jabouri and Tahir Tawfiq Ani. All were high-ranking military or intelligence officials under Hussein except for Ani, who was a northern governor.

The charges stemmed from an Iraqi military offensive in northern Iraq two decades ago dubbed Anfal, or "spoils of war" campaign, in which up to 180,000 Kurds were killed, according to prosecutors. During the trial, the defendants said they were acting under Hussein's orders to target Kurdish rebels allied with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

Prosecutors countered that the aim was to eliminate Iraq's Kurdish population, and that the victims included women, children and farmers whose orchards were destroyed and whose livestock were shot. Many victims died when Iraqi aircraft released mustard gas and nerve gas.

The charges against Ani, as expected, were dismissed after the presiding judge said there was insufficient evidence.

Jabouri and Al-Douri were sentenced to life in prison for war crimes and further terms for having seized Kurds' property. Al-Majid, Tai and Muhammed each were convicted of genocide and other crimes and were sentenced to hang.

For the most part, Kurds interviewed yesterday said the outcome was just.

Members of Iraq's Shiite majority, who also were repressed by Hussein, welcomed the verdicts. Sabah Shayal Dalfi, a resident of the Shiite district of Sadr City in Baghdad, said there was so much evidence against Hussein's loyalists that no trials should be necessary.

Their reactions showed the raw hatred that many Iraqis feel toward Hussein's regime.

But there was equally harsh vitriol from Sunni Arabs who denounced the verdict.

At a tea shop in Baghdad, several men said the trial was unfair and that the Kurds got what they deserved for not backing Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

"If I were in charge, I would have hit them with chemical weapons as well," said Abu Amir Saadi.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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