FIRST, he was dead. Then alive, then dead again. Finally last week, “Captured Alive” was stamped on the file of Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein’s ruthless righthand man and arguably the most stubborn survivor, outside of Saddam, in America’s war on Iraq.
At the Pentagon and the White House, spokesmen kept short their accounts of the capture of the man known as “Chemical Ali.” That’s not surprising, given the trail of death left in the fugitive’s wake—much of it caused by poorly aimed or faulty American bombs. The irony is that the same U.S. officials who suggested al-Majid be tried for war crimes are themselves accused of causing civilian deaths in a bungled air attack on his hideout in Basra on April 5.
The former boss of Saddam’s military apparatus, Chemical Ali’s policies in the 1980s led to the deaths or disappearance of up to 100,000 Kurds, including 5,000 who died in a gas attack on the village of Halabja in March 1988 that earned al-Majid his sinister nickname. If U.S. interrogators can break him, there is little about Saddam’s weapons programs that Chemical Ali can’t tell them.
That’s no consolation for the Hamoodis, who number among them several of Basra’s leading physicians (two Hamoodi sons live in Manchester, England, as British citizens). At 5:30 a.m. on April 5, the family’s fate collided with that of al-Majid in a deadly, explosive instant when a 500-lb. laser-guided bomb, dropped by an American F-16, plowed into the house the Hamoodis were using for shelter against the war. The target had been the compound next door. A British commando, hiding nearby, had seen al-Majid arriving there hours before. In the first attack, a pair of F-16s missed the targeted building. One bomb almost killed the English spot-
ter on the ground, while the other malfunctioned and struck the Hamoodis’ home. Later, two more bombs hit the mark.
In the choking dust and rubble, the Hamoodis’ patriarch, 72-year-old Abid Hassan struggled to free other members of the family. But it was too late for his wife, three of their children, and seven grandchildren. At least five other civilians in the vicinity died too. “Was it necessary to kill 20 people in our street for the sake of one bastard?” Hassan asked when approached by a BBC reporter a few days after the attack.
When I visited the scene on April 15, he was there, helping salvage belongings from the
ruins. “It shouldn’t have happened,” Hassan said. He added: “Ten minutes went by before the second attack. We saw people climb over the wall and run away. They escaped.”
The Pentagon was certain they had got their man, but soon came reported sightings of Chemical Ali in Baghdad. In June, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers, who had first characterized that operation as a success, allowed that al-Majid might still be alive.
While last week’s capture may cause red faces at the Pentagon, the approach of saying as little as possible about the failed air raid, and the deaths it caused, will likely pay off. According to Claudio Cordone, director of international law for Amnesty International, it would be difficult for any lawyer acting for the Hamoodis to prove the attack falls within the three possible grounds for action: targeting civilians intentionally, acting disproportionately or attacking with absolute carelessness. “The best answer would be an investigation carried out by the United States,” says Cordone, “but it’s unlikely in a case like this that the authorities would elect to do so.”
Dr. Firas Abbass, a friend of the Hamoodis and surgeon at Basra’s Children’s Hospital, wouldn’t be surprised by that outcome. “Between Saddam and the Americans,” he said of the attack, “there is nothing to choose. We are powerless, we are victims.”
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