His nickname alone is enough to make many Iraqis shudder, which is not to mention the gruesome memories of how he came by it: overseeing the deadly gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. So it's no wonder that when Ali Hassan al-Majid was put in charge of defending southern Iraq in the prelude to Gulf War II, some U.S. officials had much the same reaction. Who, after all, would be more qualified to launch a poisonous-gas attack on U.S. forces than the accused war criminal known as Chemical Ali?
In a regime built on terror, al-Majid, 62, has stood out as one of the most ruthless members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. A cousin of Saddam's, he presided over the occupation of Kuwait before the first Gulf War, crushed the 1991 Shi'ite rebellion in the south and oversaw the execution of two Iraqi officers--who were also his nephews and Saddam's sons-in-law--after they defected to Jordan and returned to Iraq.
A squat, chain-smoking diabetic and former army driver, Chemical Ali has been outranked as a trusted deputy to Saddam only by the Iraqi leader's younger son Qusay. At Saddam's 65th-birthday celebration last year in his hometown of Tikrit, al-Majid stood in for the dictator who was fearful of an assassination attempt. As part of a last-ditch diplomatic effort to shore up support for Baghdad, alMajid made recent trips to Libya and Syria but reportedly spent part of the time handing out millions of dollars to build support for his having a leadership role in post-Saddam Iraq. Considering his atrocious record, it seems a sure waste of time and money. --By Daniel Eisenberg. Reported by Scott MacLeod/Cairo