Saddam Hussein's notorious cousin "Chemical Ali" was convicted Sunday and sentenced to hang for ordering the most infamous of his crimes, the attacks against the Kurdish town of Halabja that killed more than 5,000 people in clouds of poisonous gas.
The fourth death sentence against Ali Hassan al-Majid for crimes against humanity serves as a reminder that victims of Saddam's atrocities remain determined to seek justice, as some politicians stoke the lingering bitterness toward the old Sunni-led regime to cement the Shiite domination that supplanted it.
For the still suffering victims of the assault on Halabja more than two decades ago, the verdict brought a sense of closure to an event that came to symbolize the brutality of Saddam's rule.
"Now the souls of our victims will rest in peace," said Nazik Tawfiq, a 45-year-old Kurdish woman who said she lost six relatives in the attack. Upon hearing the verdict in the Baghdad courtroom, she fell to her knees to pray.
Al-Majid's previous sentences have not been carried out in part because Halabja survivors wanted to have their case against him heard. Politics also plays a role, with a three-member presidential council representing Iraq's leading factions of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds unable to agree to sign off on an earlier execution order.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who is seeking re-election in March, has taken a tough stance against former members of Saddam's now banned Baath party. The government has accused Baathists of involvement in a number of major bombings that have undercut its efforts to maintain security as U.S. troops draw down.
Relatives of Halabja's victims clapped and embraced in a screened-off corner of the courtroom following the guilty verdict against al-Majid, one of the chief architects of Saddam's repression. He is one of the last high-profile members of the former regime still on trial, and he still faces charges in several additional cases.
In Halabja, residents cheered and songs blared from loudspeakers at a monument commemorating victims of the attack. Some in town visited the cemetery to remember loved ones who died in the gassing. The jubilation demonstrated again the deep-rooted hatred many Iraqis still feel toward the former regime.
"I came here to the cemetery to shout and tell my dead beloved relatives that the killer Chemical Ali is going to be hanged for his crimes," said Arslan Abid, who lost 16 family members in the attack.
Another senior figure in Saddam's regime, former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, suffered a severe stroke over the weekend and cannot speak, his son said Sunday from neighboring Jordan. Aziz was for years the chief diplomat of Saddam's regime. He was convicted and sentenced to prison for his involvement in the forced displacement of Kurds in northern Iraq and the deaths of Baghdad merchants in the 1990s.
Aziz was taken last Thursday to a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad for examination, said a U.S. military official, Lt. Col. Pat Johnson. His condition is improving, and he is being closely monitored, Johnson said, declining to say more due to privacy concerns.
The continuing trials of Saddam's henchmen are seen by man Iraqis as evidence that the country's new Shiite-dominated government remains worried about a possible attempt by the Sunnis and their backers among other Arab governments to undermine its grip on power.
Al-Majid earned his nickname because of his willingness to use poison gas against the Kurds.
The 1988 killings remain a source of deep pain, particularly among that community. Many in Halabja still suffer physically from the effects of the nerve and mustard gas that were unleashed on the village at the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.
Survivors feel a sense of injustice that Saddam was hanged for the killings of Shiites after a 1982 assassination attempt against him in a town north of Baghdad but did not live to face justice for the Halabja attack. He was executed in December 2006.
The chemical air raid is thought to be the worst single attack of its kind against civilians. Graphic pictures taken after the attack showed bodies of men, women, children and animals lying in the streets where they inhaled the gas.
The attack has 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.
The attacks were part of repeated attempts by Saddam's government to suppress the Kurds, who had long campaigned for autonomy from mainly Arab Iraq and staged a guerrilla war against Saddam's military. The Kurds had also allied with the Iranians during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The Kurds have since the end of the Gulf War over Kuwait in 1991 enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under the protection of U.S.-led Western powers that enforced a no-fly zone over the Kurdish north of Iraq.
The court also convicted and sentenced other former officials to jail terms on Sunday for their roles in the Halabja attack.
Former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie received 15 years in prison, as did Iraq's former director of military intelligence, Sabir Azizi al-Douri. Farhan Mutlaq al-Jubouri, a former top military intelligence official, was sentenced to 10 years.
Evidence against the defendants included witness accounts, official documents and films seized after the fall of Saddam's regime, and military correspondence among commanders.
Al-Majid was previously sentenced to hang for his role in a brutal crackdown against the Kurds in the late 1980s known as the Anfal campaign, which killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The court later issued separate death sentences for his role in the 1991 suppression of a Shiite uprising and for a 1999 crackdown that sought to quell a Shiite backlash to the slaying of a Shiite cleric who opposed the regime.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Yahya Barzanji in Halabja and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.
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