In Iraq, sometimes death is the only justice
'Chemical Ali,' others face death penalty for chemical attacks against Kurds
Darko Vojinovic / Pool via AFP - Getty Images FILE
Fight for Iraq
Learn more about the ethnic, religious and political power plays in and around Iraq during a briefing of the region led by NBC’s Richard Engel.
Images of a downfall
The path to descent of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
In a continuation of the series of trials that saw Saddam Hussein and some of his closest circle hanged in December 2006 and January 2007, it appears that the gallows at the former Directorate of Military Intelligence compound in the Khazimiyah section of Baghdad may have new victims.
The most famous of the accused is Ali Hassan al-Majid, more commonly known as “Chemical Ali” and the “Butcher of Kurdistan.” Al-Majid (Saddam’s cousin) is charged with a variety of war crimes, including genocide for his role in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. It was during this campaign that 5,000 Kurds were killed in the village of Halabjah in March 1988.
Also in the dock with al-Majid is former defense minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Jabburi al-Tay and Sabr Abd Al-Aziz al-Duri, former director of military intelligence. The Associated Press reported the verdict will be announced on June 24.
I have met both of these officers personally, and served with one professionally.
'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'
In 1988, during the last year of the Iran-Iraq War, I was sent to Baghdad as a liaison officer to the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence. Gen. Sabr (al-Duri) was that organization’s director. I was in Baghdad working with Sabr when the Iraqis conducted their chemical attacks on Halabjah. It is doubtful the attacks on the Kurds could have been conducted without Sabr’s knowledge; someone had to develop the targeting information for the Iraqi pilots.
Once we learned of the attacks, we immediately halted the flow of American intelligence information. The halt was short-lived. After a series of meetings in Washington, it was decided that it was more important to ensure that Iran did not emerge victorious than to refuse to assist the Iraqis for their chemical attacks on the Kurds. This decision defines the Middle East adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In the ensuing months, Iraq continued to use chemical weapons against Iranian troops in a series of offensives beginning in April 1988 and lasting until the Iranians gave up later that summer. I was aware of Iraqi use of chemical weapons; I had gathered the evidence while on tours of the battlefields. There was no doubt Gen. Sabr was an integral part of the military decision-making process. Ironically, Sabr will be hanged in the same compound that housed his intelligence directorate.
The U.S.-Iraqi relationship was based on political reality. The Iraqis were astute enough to realize our efforts were about containing Iran, not supporting Iraq. That’s why it ended almost immediately after the end of the war.
Weighing the death penalty
Lt. Col. Rick Francona serves as an interpreter for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during talks with Sultan Hashim Ahmad in 1991.
My initial meeting with Sultan Hashim was a bit contentious. I had gone over to his vehicle to escort him to meet General Schwarzkopf. As I introduced myself (in Arabic), he glared at me, prompting my use of some Iraqi slang that caught his attention. It seemed to amuse him. After I told him we were going to search him before admitting him to the meeting tent, he again glared. After he realized he was going to be treated as a professional, he acted the same in return.
As the invasion of Iraq began in 2003, I was on set at CNBC and who was giving a televised briefing to Saddam Hussein? None other than Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad.
More than most, I am acutely aware of the seriousness of the charges against these two officers. I had the opportunity to visit Halabjah in 1995 while serving in northern Iraq. It was a visit I will never forget. These two officers were a part of that operation.
I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but in this case, it may be the appropriate punishment. For the Kurds, it may be the only punishment.
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