Page last updated at 20:14 GMT, Monday, 25 January 2010

'Chemical Ali' death closes dark Iraqi chapter

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Ali Hassan al-Majid (July 2004)
Majid had received four death sentences for his crimes

For both the Kurds and the Shias, "Chemical" Ali Hassan al-Majid personified the evils of Saddam Hussein's regime almost as much as Saddam himself.

He was the man Saddam put in charge of brutal campaigns of repression against both communities - against the Kurds in the north in the 1980s, and against Shias in the south in 1991 and again in 1999.

He received death sentences for all those actions. One was for the broad Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, in which an estimated 180,000 perished in what human rights groups have termed a genocide.

His second and third death sentences were for the suppression of the Shia uprising in Basra and elsewhere following the Iraqi army's ouster from Kuwait in 1991, and for putting down Shia disturbances following the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim in 1999.

Baathist legacy

But the Kurds really wanted "Chemical Ali" to hang for the crime that for them symbolised their suffering under Saddam - the poison gas attack on Halabja in March 1988 in which an estimated 5,000 Kurdish civilians perished.

His hanging is divine justice
Hoshyar Zebari
Iraqi foreign minister

That was the crime against humanity for which Majid was handed his fourth death sentence on 17 January. Even he must have known this was the end of the line. As the sentence was handed down, he said twice : "Praise be to God".

Just eight days later, he was hanged without fanfare; it was announced only after it had happened.

"His hanging is divine justice, and it will help heal some of the wounds he inflicted on the Kurds and the Shias," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, himself a Kurd.

In that sense, the hanging of Ali Hassan al-Majid could be seen as helping national reconciliation and the closing of an ugly chapter.

But Sunnis, who were empowered under Saddam Hussein and among whom many have felt disenfranchised since his overthrow, may see Majid's demise as an act of revenge rather than one of justice.

The legacy of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime lingers on in other ways too.

The Iraqi government, and particularly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has blamed the campaign of co-ordinated, high-profile bomb attacks on Baathist remnants working with Islamist militants.

He has been accused of using the bombs - which undermine his claims to have established security - to tarnish his election rivals with a Baathist brush.

The disqualification of more than 500 candidates for the March general elections on the grounds of alleged Baathist sympathies or connections has also generated a bitter political row that has reinforced the sectarian political rift.

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