Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali for ordering the poison-gas attack that killed 5,000 Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, has been captured alive, the US Army said yesterday.
Majid was number five on the Americans' most-wanted list and there have been calls from human rights groups for him to be put on trial for crimes against humanity. His capture finally puts paid to American claims that he was killed in April in an air strike on a house in southern Iraq, where he had been sent by Saddam Hussein to lead the region's defence. That air strike was portrayed at the time as one of the great successes of the war.
British military officials said then that Majid had been killed and they had recovered his body. But the Americans were never that categorical, and in June they suggested he was still alive. "Obviously he was not there and if he was, he survived the attack," an American military spokesman said.
Two more American soldiers were killed in separate incidents in Iraq yesterday, the US military announced today.
One soldier was killed in action near Hilla, 30 miles south of Baghdad, while the second, from the 1st Armoured Division based in Baghdad, died in the Iraqi capital.
Sixty-five US soldiers have been killed since President George Bush declared an end to formal combat on 1 May.
While attention has been diverted by Tuesday's bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, the American-led occupation forces have had a good week in their hunt for members of Saddam's former regime. On Tuesday, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said its peshmerga guerrillas had captured Taha Yassin Ramadan, Saddam's vice-president.
Ramadan, nicknamed "Saddam's Knuckles" for his role in the dictator's countless purges, was wearing peasant clothing as a disguise when he was tracked among relatives in northern Iraq.
Four of the names at the top of the US most-wanted list are either in captivity, or, in the case of Saddam's sons, dead. Only the man at the top of the list, Saddam, is still at large.
The American military said Majid was captured on Sunday while he was travelling with bodyguards, but did not give further details as the hunt for Saddam intensifies. The al-Jazeera media network said Majid was found by American troops in the city of Samara, north of Baghdad.
General John Abizaid, the head of US Central Command, said Majid had been involved in anti-American attacks. "Chemical Ali has been active in some ways in influencing people around him in a regional way," he said.
Human rights activists and Iraqi pressure groups have called for Ramadan and Majid to be put on trial before an independent court for crimes against humanity. But that seems unlikely. The Americans will be more eager to question him about the whereabouts of Saddam, in the desperate hope that the weapons of mass destruction they failed to find do exist and that Majid can tell them where they are.
The Americans needed good news after Tuesday's bombing, which has exposed the desperate lack of security in Iraq under US occupation. The toll from the bombing rose yesterday, as three bodies were dug from the rubble, bringing it to at least 23, including the UN's envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
A previously unknown group claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement broadcast by the Dubai-based al-Arabiya satellite channel. The group, calling itself the "Armed Vanguards of a Second Mohammed Army" pledged "to continue fighting every foreigner [in Iraq] and to carry out similar operations".
The UN is pulling a third of its staff, 150 people, out of Iraq. But Ramiro Lopez da Silva, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator now in charge of the mission, said only administrative support staff were leaving, and essential hands-on staff would remain. He said staff would replace the dead and injured. The UN is adamant it will remain in Iraq.
There have been reports that the UN mission in Iraq turned down American offers of extra security. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said yesterday the UN had been wrong if the reports were true. Mr da Silva the body would keep its security light in Iraq. "We will always be a soft target," he said. Heavy American security outside would alienate "some of the people we are here to work for", he said. "The UN is an open organisation."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was also considering cutting its staff but would stay in Iraq.
Brutal career of the man known as Saddam's executioner
The Iraqi military leader known as Chemical Ali, now in US custody, is seen as one of the most brutal men of the ousted regime. Ali Hassan al-Majid is said to have been filmed personally killing alleged enemies of the regime, and to have overseen some of the worst crimes of Saddam Hussein's rule.
A cousin of Saddam, he was with the Iraqi leader from his early years as he rose to control of the Baath Party. He became Minister of Defence, but his real rank was far higher.
He is believed to have been completely loyal to the regime. In 1988, Saddam put Majid in charge of a campaign against the Kurds, of which the Halabja massacre was only the worst of many atrocities. Thousands were killed.
After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam dispatched him to serve as governor there for three months of repression. After the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds and Shias rose up against Saddam's rule, after being urged to do so and promised help by the United States.Majid oversaw the regime's response, in which thousands were tortured and killed. His forces carved their way through civilian areas, including the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
He has been accused of ordering the killing of two of his nephews the brothers Hussein Kamel al-Majid and Saddam Kamel al-Majid, both senior army officers who had been enticed back into Iraq by Saddam after defecting to Jordan in 1995, where they revealed information about Iraqi weapons programmes.
Hussein Kamel al-Majid's widow, Raghad, publicly accused Ali Hassan al-Majid of her husband's killing, saying that she believed her father had pardoned the brothers.