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Iraq's southern troops led by man thought to be responsible for deaths of thousands

WASHINGTON—One of Saddam Hussein's most feared and hated hatchet men oversees the forces that are defending the southern front in Iraq.

Ali Hassan al Majid, a cousin of the Iraqi leader, earned his nickname, "Chemical Ali," by overseeing the fatal gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds. He may be behind the suicide attack on a U.S. Army checkpoint that killed five people Saturday and the recent shooting of civilians who were trying to flee Basra.

"He has been involved in some of Iraq's worst crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity," Kenneth Roth, the head of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on the group's Web site. "Bringing him to justice is an essential priority."

When Saddam named Majid commander of Iraqi forces in the south before the war, U.S. officials said they thought Iraq was prepared to use chemical weapons on invading coalition forces.

"There are such reports," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "I have no doubt that he (Saddam) would do such a thing if he thought it served his interest. And so we are concerned about it."

Also known as the "Butcher of Kurdistan," Majid led Iraq's 1987-88 Anfal campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq. Up to 100,000 Kurds were killed in the campaign, which relied on chemical weapons, mass executions and forced relocation to terrorize the area, the State Department says. In March 1988, poison gas and nerve agents were used to kill 5,000 people in Halabja, an attack thought to be Majid's handiwork.

It wasn't Iraq's first use of chemical weapons. In the early 1980s, Iraq used poison gas extensively in its war with Iran. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 20,000 Iranians were killed by mustard gas and the nerve agents tabun and sarin during that conflict.

Majid, whose military career began as an army motorcycle messenger, is one of a small group of leaders in Saddam's inner circle who have survived repeated purges. A member of Saddam's powerful Revolutionary Command Council, Majid's power and brutal reputation have grown during Saddam's two decades in power.

Majid was appointed governor of Kuwait during Iraq's occupation of the Persian Gulf emirate in 1990 and 1991, during which thousands of Kuwaitis were thought to have been executed. The State Department says his rule was marked by torture, murder, rape and looting.

After the first Gulf War, Majid served as Saddam's interior minister, crushing a Shiite revolt in southern Iraq. Majid has also been linked to the execution of his nephew, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al Majid, Saddam's son-in-law who ran Iraq's clandestine weapons programs before defecting to Jordan in 1995.

Thought to be in his early 60s, Majid's most brutal role was as ruler of Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980s.

A Human Rights Watch book, "Iraq's Crime of Genocide," says Majid ordered "all persons captured shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them."

Of the Kurds, he also has been quoted as saying: "I can say we'll hit them with the chemicals and kill them all. Who is going to say anything? The international community? To hell with the international community and all those who listen to them."

During Majid's tour of Arab capitals this year seeking support for Saddam's regime, Human Rights Watch called for Majid's arrest under the terms of the U.N. convention against torture and inhuman treatment.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.