Today in Baghdad, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, was hanged. He was Saddam Hussein’s cousin, brought up like him in Tikrit, in the Sunni heart-land. There was a family resemblance, physically and morally. Chemical Ali acquired his sobriquet in the Iran–Iraq War. The Baath elite feared that the Kurds were turning against them and siding with the Iranians who anyhow looked as if they might break through. Chemical Ali was in charge of the operation to crush them by using poison gas. Some 5,000 Kurds were killed in this way. It was not the first time an Arab power had used gas. President Nasser of Egypt had gassed Yemenis in his campaign in that country in 1966 and 1967. But this Iraqi atrocity convinced Western intelligence services that Saddam possessed wider weapons of mass destruction and obviously the will to use them. This determined Western policy, leading to the occupation that followed and the consequences the world is now living.
Chemical Ali was made governor of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. At the time, a clip of film captured a scene that told all there was to know about this brutal man. Chemical Ali was shown standing in a stretch of desert surrounded by Iraqi officers. A prisoner was brought to him and made to kneel with his hands tied behind his back. Chemical Ali then abused him verbally, and started kicking him. Some weeks later, Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait. Encouraged by American policy, but not in fact supported on the ground, the Shia rose in revolt against Saddam. Chemical Ali was given the task of crushing the Shia and he did so mercilessly, with an unknown number of thousands murdered at his orders. Again he was recorded boasting of the use of gas, saying that nobody could prevent it and cursing the West in foul language for its opposition.
If anyone deserved to die, it is this sadistic killer. But execution is an awesome thing. I have just been reading Michael Scammell’s new biography of Arthur Koestler. He was sentenced to death in the Spanish civil war, and it affected him all his life. In later years, he campaigned hard to have the death penalty banned in Britain, and succeeded in doing so. The arguments he put forward are unanswerable intellectually, concerned as they are with miscarriages of justice, wrongful identification, and the like. Yet this doesn’t cover a case like Chemical Ali.
I had supposed myself to be against capital punishment for the reasons that Koestler had given. But I attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, heard the evidence against him, and was present when his final appeal was turned down. Half an hour later we all heard that he had been hanged. I was amazed to find that the world seemed a better place, because justice had been done. It is the same now with the news from Baghdad.