Ali Hassan al-Majid: Iraqi official known as 'Chemical Ali' executed for genocide and crimes against humanity

Ali Hassan al-Majid was one of the great monsters of the 20th century and carried out one of its vilest crimes. It was he who gave the orders for hundreds of thousands of Kurds to be gassed and the survivors massacred in 1987 and 1988. "The armed forces must kill any human being or animal present," he decreed.

It was for the crime of genocide against the Kurds that Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali", was first sentenced to death by a court in June 2007. His execution was delayed because two Iraqi generals were condemned to die alongside him and Sunni Arab leaders waged a campaign to save them. It was only when it was agreed that nothing would be decided about their fate that the order came for Majid to be hanged.

Of all Saddam Hussein's brutal henchmen Majid was seen by Iraqis as the most cruel. He was without redeeming qualities. He rose so high in the ranks of the Baathist regime because he was a cousin of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leader could rely on his total loyalty. Once a motorcycle despatch rider, he became the regime's ruthless enforcer against the Kurds, the Shia, Kuwaitis and Baathist leaders who opposed the rise of Saddam Hussein.

But it was in Kurdistan in 1987-88 that Majid committed his worse atrocities. Appointed overlord of Kurdistan on 18 March 1987, he moved swiftly to crush the long-running Kurdish rebellion by destroying all villages, using poison gas on a mass scale and slaughtering the men women and children who survived.

"You gave orders to the troops to kill Kurdish civilians," said the judge, Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa, when he passed the death sentence on Majid in 2007. "You subjected them to wide and systematic attacks using chemical weapons and artillery. You led the killing of Iraqi villagers, you restricted them to their areas, burned their orchards, killed their animals. You committed genocide."

The Kurdish countryside still bears the scars of this campaign. There are sinister mounds of broken masonry by the road where villages once stood. The Iraqi army had long had an infamous record in Kurdistan, but it was Majid who systematised the killings during "Operation Anfal – the Spoils of War" launched in 1987. Many of his telephone calls and meetings with senior officials about Anfal were recorded and later discovered by Kurdish guerrillas when they briefly captured Kirkuk in 1991. In one meeting with senior Iraqi officials in 1988 Majid can be heard screeching in his whiny voice: "I will kill all [Kurds] with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? Fuck them! The international community and all who listen to them."

In the event Majid turned out to have exaggerated the international condemnation of the gassing of Halabja, where 5,000 died, and the mass killings across Kurdistan. Britain expressed grave concern over the use of chemical weapons but promptly doubled the export credit facility available to Iraq. The US tried to implicate Iran in the use of poison gas. Majid gloried in his reputation as the merciless hammer of the regime, once claiming that Saddam Hussein had counselled him to help the families of insurgents, but saying he had replied: "No, I will only bury them with bulldozers."

But the suggestion that Majid ever seriously opposed Saddam Hussein is wholly misleading. He was always the obsequious lieutenant. Born in Tikrit in 1941, he was a member, like Saddam, of the Bejat clan of the Albu Nasir tribe whose members filled all the crucial security and intelligence posts in the Baathist regime which came to power in a coup in 1968.

Having been a motorcycle messenger, Majid won swift promotion becoming head of the Security Office in the mid-1970s. When Saddam presided over a famous meeting of the Baath party in 1979, when he purged the party leadership of his opponents, Majid stood behind him. "What you have done in the past was good," he said unctuously. "What you will do in the future is good. But there is one small point. You have been too gentle, too merciful." Saddam's oppondents were dragged from the meeting to be tortured and executed.

Physically, Majid was a slight man with a menacing rat-like face and straggly moustache. A diabetic, he suffered from hypertension and spinal infections. At first he was outranked in the ruling family by Saddam's half brothers and later by his sons Uday and Qusay. But his rule as head of the Northern Bureau of the Baath party in 1987-88 stood him in good stead as the man who could be trusted to mastermind repressions. After the invasion of Kuwait he was appointed governor of Iraq's new 19th province, where he looted anything that could be stolen.

When Saddam Hussein's army broke and fled during the US-led attack in 1991, the Shia of southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north rose up in rebellion. Once again Saddam turned to his cousin, making the 50-year-old Majid his Interior Minister in charge of crushing the insurrection.

He was being elbowed to one side by Uday and later by Qusay, but in 1996 he showed that not even members of his own family were safe. His nephew Hussein Kamel, son-in-law and senior lieutenant to Saddam, fled to Jordan and then unwisely returned to Baghdad the following year. It was Majid who led tribal gunmen in an attack on Kamel's house and killed him.

In 2003 Majid was put in charge of defending Basra and at one moment the British claimed they had killed him in an air strike, but he turned out to have survived and was arrested on 21 August the same year. There was never any doubt about the result of his trials as a war criminal. He was sentenced to death four times, for his role in killing Shia in 1991 and 1999, the genocide of the Kurds in the 1980s, and ordering the gassing of Kurds at Halabja. His fourth death sentence was passed on 17 January this year, and he was hanged yesterday.

Patrick Cockburn

Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikritieh, politician: born Tikrit, Iraq 30 November 1941; died 25 January 2010.

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