BAGHDAD, Iraq—As the confirmed death toll from Tuesday's bombing of the United Nations compound in Baghdad rose to 23, the U.S. military announced Thursday that it had captured Ali Hassan al Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering poisonous gas attacks that killed thousands of Kurds in the 1980s.
Although the military provided no details on how al Majid was captured, the apprehension of one of the most feared members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle fueled speculation that the U.S.-led coalition was moving closer to finding the former dictator himself.
An American soldier with the 1st Armored Division was killed and two were wounded late Wednesday after a homemade bomb struck their convoy in Baghdad's Karkah district, said Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons, a military spokesman. That death brought to at least 61 the number of U.S. troops who have been killed in combat in Iraq since President Bush declared major combat over three and a half months ago.
Al Majid was No. 5 on the U.S. list of the top 55 most-wanted Iraqis and the "King of Spades" in the decks of cards handed out to American soldiers to help them identify members of Saddam's former regime. The news of the capture, announced in a terse statement by U.S. Central Command, was a boost for the coalition after an excruciating two weeks capped by the bombing of the U.N. headquarters.
U.S. soldiers continued to dig through rubble from the blast Thursday, using heavy machinery to remove large pieces of concrete and digging by hand where they thought victims still might be buried. They were joined late Wednesday by a Turkish recovery team using corpse-sniffing dogs, said Maj. Mark Johnston, of the 493rd Engineer Group, which is conducting the excavation. An FBI team departed the site early Thursday, Johnston said.
Hopes of finding anyone still alive in the rubble faded. The last two bodies were pulled from the rubble Wednesday, said Capt. Sean Kirley, a spokesman for the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment, which is guarding the site. About 40 American soldiers were in the building when the explosion occurred. Some received cuts, but none were seriously wounded, he said.
U.N. spokesman Salim Lone said at least 23 people, "maybe a little more," were killed in the blast. Two U.N. personnel remained unaccounted for, and an unknown number of visitors still could be buried in the rubble.
"There is always hope that one more friend might come out of here alive," he said. "It is heartbreaking."
Romiro Lopez da Silva, the Iraq coordinator for U.N. humanitarian programs, said that about 100 support and administrative staff, out of a total of 300, would be flown to Amman, Jordan, and Larnaca, Cyprus. But program staff would stay, and U.N. operations would resume Saturday, da Silva said.
He added that 86 U.N. staffers were wounded seriously in the attack and would be evacuated when their conditions permitted. About 40 people who were traumatized by the blast already have left Iraq, da Silva said.
Da Silva said the new U.N. headquarters, which will open elsewhere in Baghdad, probably wouldn't have a larger coalition presence. It would be impossible for the United Nations to do its work in Iraq, he said, with U.S. troops and tanks surrounding its facilities.
"We will always remain a soft target," he said. "But that's the way we operate."
Al Majid originally was believed to have been killed when American jets bombed his home in Basra on April 5. But he was later seen alive, and U.S. officials acknowledged their first reports were wrong.
The organization Human Rights Watch, in one of its dossiers on the former regime, called al Majid "Saddam's hatchet man" and said he was "involved in some of the worst crimes of the Iraqi government including genocide and crimes against humanity."
Said to be a cousin of Saddam's, al Majid became an army general and Baath Party chief in northern Iraq in the 1980s, where he led a campaign of mass murder against Kurdish separatists. The tactics included chemical weapons attacks, including a bombing of the town of Halabja that killed an estimated 5,000 people.
"I will kill them all with chemical weapons!" the Iraqi general said on an audiotape of a meeting of top officials, which was later captured by Kurdish rebels. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? (Expletive) them!"
He is also believed to have taken part in the vicious crackdown on Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq after their uprising during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Witnesses said he personally took part in torture and executions.
The U.S.-appointed Governing Council recently appointed a committee to set up a war crimes tribunal to try members of the former regime. Al Majid almost certainly would be one of the defendants.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030821 Iraq most wanted and 20030821 Chemical Ali