Even in Saddam Hussein's ruthless regime, "Chemical Ali" stood apart, notable for his role in gassing 5,000 people in a Kurdish village the deadliest chemical weapons attack ever against civilians.
Ali Hassan al-Majid was hanged Monday, leaving a notorious legacy that stamped Saddam's regime as capable of unimaginable cruelty and brought unsettling questions about Iraq's stockpiles of poison gas and whether it could unleash them again.
The poison gas clouds that struck the village of Halabja began what would become an about-face by Washington which had supported Saddam during the eight-year war against Iran's new Islamic state in the 1980s*, but soon became his arch-foe and protector of the Kurds in their northern enclave.
*Now, they admit what "conspiracy nuts" were saying, years ago. This line has been omitted from many online versions of this story. Guess what kind of "support". It's unthinkable the Iranian leadership might use that fact for their own purposes. Kurds = important, Iranians = expendable. Uncle Jed also just happened to find some 'black gold/Texas tea' in the northern enclave of we-won't-call-it-Kurdistan-just-yet. ~t*t
"I want to kiss the hangman's rope," said Kamil Mahmoud, a 40-year-old teacher who lost eight family members in the March 16, 1988, attack in Iraq's Kurdish region.
Photos taken after the Halabja attack showed bodies of men, women, children and animals lying in heaps on the streets.
Al-Majid, 68, was executed about a week after he received his fourth death sentence since facing Iraqi courts after the fall of Saddam. He was one of the last high-profile members of the former Sunni-led regime still on trial in Iraq.
He said "Praise God" in Arabic as the sentence was read Jan. 17.
The only public record of the execution so far are two still photos shown briefly on state TV: one of him wearing red prison coveralls and the other of him on the gallows with a black hood over his head. The mood was far more controlled than the taunting reported at Saddam's hanging in December 2006.
Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, gave no other details of the execution. But that didn't stop speculation that three deadly suicide attacks in Baghdad just before the official announcement of the death could have been retaliation for the act.
Al-Majid, who bore a striking resemblance to Saddam, carried out some of the regime's bloodiest missions.
In 1988, as the Iran-Iraq war was winding down, al-Majid commanded a scorched-earth campaign known as Anfal to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in the north. An estimated 100,000 people most of them civilians were killed over less than a year after Saddam suspected the non-Arab Kurds of siding with Persian Iran during the war. But it was the Halabja attack that riveted the world's attention.
He led another sweeping campaign, crushing a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq after Saddam's military was driven from Kuwait in 1991.
Al-Majid was a warrant officer and motorcycle messenger in the army before Saddam's Baath party took power in a 1968 coup. He was promoted to general and served as defense minister from 1991-95, as well as a regional party leader.
During the war with Iran in the 1980s, al-Majid was part of command structure for Iraqi forces, which was accused of using chemical agents on Iranian troops in a conflict that left a total of 1 million dead. Two main formulas were cited by U.N. investigators: mustard gas, an oily liquid first used in World War I whose vapor can remain deadly for days; and tabun, a nerve gas that causes convulsions and paralysis before death.
"For Saddam Hussein, chemical weapons were a force multiplier, a way of countering the Iranian human-wave infantry tactics that were overwhelming Iraqi positions," said Jonathan Tucker, a Washington-based senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The lingering worries about possible secret stockpiles helped fuel support for the U.S.-led invasion despite no clear evidence and Iraqi claims that it disposed of its chemical weapons, which are banned under international conventions.
During the trials after Saddam's fall, prosecutors played audiotapes of what they said were conversations between Saddam and al-Majid.
In one of the recordings, al-Majid was heard vowing to "leave no Kurd (alive) who speaks the Kurdish language."
He claimed he used such language as "psychological and propaganda" tools against the Kurds to frighten them into not fighting government forces.
In a January 2007 court hearing, he said a death sentence did not worry him.
"I will face death with open arms," he said.
The sentences to hang then came: first for the suppression of the Shiites in 1991, and then for the Anfal campaign and a third for a 1999 crackdown that sought to quell Shiite unrest after the slaying of a Shiite cleric who opposed the regime.
The previous sentences were not been carried out in part because Halabja survivors wanted to have their case against him heard.
"Chemical Ali was the symbol of crimes and genocide in modern history. Executing him is a lesson to those who do the same .... those who kill their people and use banned weapons," said Saadi Ahmed, a member in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party led by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani.
In Saddam's hometown Tikrit some residents offered prayers for the loss of a man who remains a favored son.
"I give my condolences to the Iraqi people on the martyrdom of comrade Ali Hassan al-Majid. Tikrit and Iraq are proud of him," said one man from Tikrit, who refused to give his name.
The Halabja attack left many of the survivors with long-term medical problems such as permanent blindness, skin burns, respiratory and digestive problems and cancer, said Farman Othman, a doctor in Suleimaniyah who has treated a number of patients.
Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at International Crisis Group, said what set Halabja apart was its "full scale attack on a population center with a weapon of mass destruction."
"In terms of proliferation and human rights abuses, this is an order of magnitude different than going into a city and just shooting up the place," said Hiltermann, who is the author of a book on the Halabja attacks.