Posted 2/29/2008 6:27 PM
By John Affleck, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD — The Saddam Hussein henchman known as "Chemical Ali" for gassing thousands of Kurdish civilians is due to hang within the month, following the endorsement of his death sentence Friday by Iraq's presidential council. But even survivors were notably subdued about the news in a nation weary of violence and suffering.
The agreement among Iraq's three-member presidential council -- President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, along with the Sunni and Shiite vice presidents -- eliminated the last barrier before Ali Hassan al-Majid can be executed.
The presidential council spared the lives of two other Saddam aides, in what was seen as a possible attempt to appease minority Sunnis. The two men -- Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces, and former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie -- are in U.S. custody, as is al-Majid.
The date of the execution will be determined by the Iraqi government.
A cousin of Saddam who once was an army motorcycle messenger, al-Majid rose to become a general and served as defense minister from 1991-95. He was among the most important figures in the former regime's inner circle, and was known as one of the most merciless.
Al-Majid, al-Taie and Mohammed were sentenced to death in June after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their part in Operation Anfal -- a 1987-88 crackdown on the Kurdish region that killed nearly 200,000 civilians and guerrillas.
Witnesses testified that Iraqi government forces attacked women and children, burned crops, killed livestock and forced civilians into detention camps.
Hundreds of Kurds danced in the streets last June when al-Majid was sentenced to death.
But on Friday in Halabja, a city near the Iranian border that was the scene of a notorious gas attack that killed an estimated 5,000 civilians, news that al-Majid's sentence is to be carried out was greeted with relief but not joy.
"I am glad to see Chemical Ali hanged at last and I am psychologically relieved to see the person who killed thousands of my people being punished at last," said 43-year-old Aras Abdi, who lost 12 relatives in the Halabja attack.
"On the other hand, the execution will not improve our lives. We have been neglected by the Kurdish regional government."
Another Halabja resident, Kamil Mahmoud, said he still has trouble breathing as a result of the attack.
"I was afraid that I would die without seeing Chemical Ali punished for his crimes," said Mahmoud, who lost eight family members to the gas. "But thanks to God, the time has come for Ali to see his shameful end."
Nearly five years after Saddam was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, sectarian and insurgent violence persists.
According to an Associated Press count, at least 729 Iraqis were reported killed through Thursday in February, up from at least 610 Iraqis killed in January. At least 29 U.S. troops were killed in February, down from 40 the month before.
On Friday, gunmen kidnapped Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho as he left Mass, police said. Ninevah provincial police Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said the attackers also killed three people who were with the prelate.
An aide to Iraq's Chaldean cardinal said he did not know who seized the 65-year-old archbishop in Mosul, a northern city which the U.S. military considers an urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq. Pope Benedict XVI called for Rahho's release, saying the kidnapping was an "abominable" attack.
Al-Majid would be the fifth former regime official hanged for alleged atrocities during Saddam's nearly three-decade rule.
Saddam also had been a defendant in the so-called Anfal trial, but he was hanged Dec. 30, 2006, for ordering the killings of more than 140 Shiites after a 1982 assassination attempt against him.
Prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi, who said he had received word of the decision from the presidential council, said there was a legal basis for executing "Chemical Ali" but not the other two officials.
An appeals court upheld the verdicts against the three men in September. But they were put on hold after Sunni leaders, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, launched a campaign to spare al-Taie. Officials said al-Hashemi refused to approve the execution of al-Taie and Mohammed because he considered them career soldiers who were following orders.
President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, had also refused to sign the order against al-Taie, a Sunni who signed the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War.
Many Sunni Arabs saw al-Taie's sentence as evidence that Shiite and Kurdish officials were persecuting their once-dominant minority and as a sign of Shiite influence over the judiciary.
Few had sympathy for al-Majid, however.
"Hassan al-Majid is renowned for his brutality," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd. The case, he said, "shows that justice delayed is better than no justice."
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.
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