Fit to be tried

"Chemical Ali," the man alleged to have gassed 5,000 Kurds in 1988, is the first in Saddam's regime to face trial.

Published December 16, 2004 4:28PM (EST)

One of Saddam Hussein's most feared lieutenants, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering gas attacks on Kurdish villages, will appear in court in Baghdad within days, an Iraqi minister said Wednesday. Ali Hassan al-Majid will appear in court next week to answer a string of charges for crimes against humanity, Hazem Shaalan, the defense minister, said. "He will be the first to be tried."

Some critics have said the announcement is an effort by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to strengthen his credibility ahead of the Jan. 30 elections. Western diplomats said the court appearance was unlikely to be a trial, but rather a preliminary part of the investigative process. It is not clear whether Majid has seen a lawyer since he was arrested last year. The announcement came as Allawi announced his candidacy for next month's elections, on the first official day of campaigning.

Several hundred candidates have put forward their names, but the elections will take place under the shadow of continued violence. A bomb exploded at one of the gates to the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala Wednesday night, one of the holiest sites in the Shiite Muslim faith, killing at least eight people and wounding more than 30. One of the wounded was a senior cleric, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalai, a representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The blast may have been an attempt to assassinate the cleric, and a number of his bodyguards were killed.

In a mark of the deteriorating security situation, the Foreign Office in London Wednesday advised Britons against all travel to Baghdad or five nearby provinces, citing concerns about attacks.

As he announced his candidacy, Allawi appeared before a group of supporters, some tribal leaders, some clerics and others in suits. He said if elected he would work to remove "religious and ethnic fanaticism," and would rebuild the Iraqi security forces to pave the way for a withdrawal of the U.S. and British military "according to a set timetable." Despite the violence, he clearly hopes the public trial of Majid will show that his interim government has proved itself and begun the difficult reckoning with the brutal legacy of the past 30 years.

Majid appeared in court briefly in July, along with Saddam and 10 other senior regime figures, to hear the outline of the charges against them. He looked frail, with short gray hair and a short black mustache, and he leaned on a walking stick. But as he left the courtroom after the hearing he said he was surprised there had not been more charges against him. Majid was one of Saddam's most trusted lieutenants, who was at various times defense and interior minister and head of intelligence and security. He was given the military governorship of Kuwait after the invasion in 1990. He then oversaw the repression of the 1991 uprising in the south that followed the Gulf War.

But his infamous and enduring legacy remains the allegation that he gave the final orders for the gassing of the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, in which 5,000 people were killed. He was captured in August last year.

Despite Allawi's efforts, the strongest political alliance remains a Shia list dominated by powerful religious parties and overseen by Ayatollah Sistani.

Some government politicians who have been excluded from the list have already begun to campaign against it. Yesterday Shaalan said the parties on the list were too close to Iran, a country he has labeled Iraq's greatest enemy.

By Rory McCarthy

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