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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world