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Analysis Last Updated: Jan 21st, 2010 - 00:34:17

�Chemical Ali� is only one culprit
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 21, 2010, 00:15

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Saddam Hussein�s look-alike cousin, Iraq�s former Defense Minister Ali Hassan Al-Majid -- better known as �Chemical Ali� -- has been sentenced to death for �crimes against humanity� that he was found to have committed in 1988 against residents of the Iraqi-Kurdish town of Halabja. He has a right of appeal but cannot escape the ultimate punishment. Four times previously he has been similarly sentenced by an Iraqi court on other counts.

There will be few tears shed in Iraq when justice is finally meted out to this feared and hated individual, who has displayed no remorse for his crimes against people that he considered traitors for sympathizing with Iran during the final months of the Iran-Iraq war. He believed the Kurds needed to be taught a lesson for allowing Iranian troops entry into Iraq in exchange for the promise of an independent Kurdish state and he is proud to have been the one to do just that.

On March 16, 1988, Iraqi aircraft bombed the area with chemical and nerve agents including mustard gas, VX, sarin, soman and tabun. When initial images and gruesome accounts of the resultant horror appeared in Iranian newspapers, Saddam chose to blame Tehran for the carnage and proceeded to raze the town (later partially rebuilt). He stuck to his story even as journalists reported 5,000 dead on impact, contaminated food, water and soil, birth defects as well as increased psychological and congenital disorders. During his own trial that resulted in his hanging, he claimed to have heard about the Halabja massacre but said he had no personal knowledge of events that took place there.

Those who toured the death zone were traumatized by seeing ashen corpses appearing as though they had been frozen in time; parents clutching infants and babies, people sitting in their own vehicles and women in their kitchens preparing food. Some reported seeing beautiful children sobbing while begging for medical treatment.

Back in 1988, the US State Department staunchly backed Saddam against the Iranian regime, as for Washington he was the lesser of two evils. America supported Iraq�s eight-year-long struggle against Iran and when Saddam pointed his finger at Tehran for murdering 5,000 Kurds, the US Defense Intelligence Agency turned its own in Iran�s direction.

The CIA quickly followed suit suggesting Iran gassed the people of Halabja by accident as though they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, while the US Army College announced there was no proof that Saddam was behind the gassing of the Kurds. This skewing of the truth was because, at that time, Iraq�s leader was America�s man in the region. He wasn�t exactly the White House�s blue-eyed boy; rather from the US government�s perspective, he was the best of a bad bunch. Peter Galbraith, a Senate staffer, attempted to put Kurdish leaders with evidence of Iraqi involvement in touch with the State Department but nobody wanted to upset Saddam by talking with them.

There is, of course, a further dimension to America�s rush to clear Saddam of charges of genocide. The weapons that were employed by his henchman, �Chemical Ali,� were all imported from prominent Western manufacturers, which either knew what purpose they would eventually serve or suspected as much.

Files relating to deals made between these companies and Saddam�s regime were discovered by weapons inspectors and handed to the United Nations, which instead of investigating has labeled the evidence �confidential� and keeps it under lock and key. This is presumably to avoid embarrassing the mainly European companies concerned.

A documentary made by former �60 Minutes� producer Barry Lando for the French TV network Canal and called �Saddam Hussein: The Trial the World Will Never See� attempts to explore the truth. It reports how a major French supplier of a multimillion dollar chemical factory to Iraq was phoned to ask them whether they knew the end use of their product and was informed that the company does not wish to speak about that. The caller asks, �Is this subject embarrassing to the company,� and receives the answer �In a way . . . yes.�

It explains how US officials knew about the chemical weapons or the raw materials to manufacture them that were flooding into Iraq and didn�t bat an eyelid at the time. When the Reagan administration later found out that Iraq was producing illegal nerve gas it discussed what to do about this at a senior level but, in the end, preserving good diplomatic relations with Saddam to ensure he emerged victorious from the Iran-Iraq war, overrode other concerns. As a commentator explains, the most important element for the United States is assuring the constant uninterrupted flow of oil from the region.

All that changed in 2002, when former US President George W. Bush began desperately seeking pretexts to invade Iraq. At the top of the list was the threat of Saddam�s terrifying weapons of mass destruction that turned out to no longer exist. So, of course, the Halabja skeleton, which former US administrations had tried their best to conceal, was pulled from the cupboard and exposed to a skeptical world as proof of Saddam�s malevolence along with his willingness to use WMD on even his own Iraqi people.

The hypocrisy, evidenced by the warm handshake between Bush�s former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam in Baghdad just months before the attack on Halabja, is nauseating. It�s little wonder that Saddam�s trial was heavily censored and he was dispatched from this world in haste along with his secrets. Once he is joined by �Chemical Ali,� those who fear that their own part in Halabja may be revealed will sleep more soundly.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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