'Chemical Ali' to be hanged within days

Ali Hassan al-Majid sentenced to death by Iraq's high criminal court for ordering slaughter of Kurds in 1988

One of Saddam Hussein's most loathed henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as Chemical Ali, will be hanged within days, a senior official said tonight, setting the scene for Iraq's highest profile execution since Saddam himself was put to death more than three years ago.

The former spy chief and first cousin of Saddam was today sentenced to death for ordering the slaughter of more than 5,000 Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja with chemical weapons in 1988.

It was the fourth death sentence the 68-year-old has received for atrocities committed during the brutal three-decade reign of the Ba'athists. Iraq's deputy justice minister, Busho Ibrahim, said Majid's execution was now imminent.

"We will receive Chemical Ali from the Americans in the next few days and he will be executed very soon afterwards," said Ibrahim. Majid was sentenced by Iraq's high criminal court. All remaining prosecutions he faces are now expected to be set aside.

Separately, the Guardian has learned that the US detention centre in which Majid has been held since being captured six years ago will continue to house prisoners until August, despite being scheduled to close on 31 December as part of a much-heralded security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. The status of forces agreement signed between both states had flagged the ­closure of the Camp Cropper detention centre as a milestone of security progress.

The US president, Barack Obama, had been personally involved in ordering its closure and the end of the contentious system used in Iraq where suspected militants could be detained by US forces, often with limited judicial redress.

Ibrahim said the extension of the US detention programme had been requested by Iraq. "We asked for this delay because we do not yet have enough staff who can deal with all the prisoners. We are still training them and we are making plans to receive the rest, hopefully by March."

Another official, interior ministry intelligence chief, Hussein Kamal, said the delay had been caused by a lack of space in Iraq's prisons and limited capacity in its courts. "There has been a limited extension asked for and granted," said Kamal.

Among those still in Camp Cropper, inside the US Victory base near Baghdad airport in the west of the city, is the former Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz, who was reported to have suffered a stroke in his cell over the weekend that has left him partially paralysed and unable to speak.

Aziz and other Saddam loyalists are due to be moved to a Iraqi/US prison in Camp Taji, a military base north of Baghdad that will also house detainees considered by the US military too dangerous to free, or to hand over to Iraqi officials. "A total of 29 of the Saddam regime loyalists are already in Taji," said Ibrahim. "The rest will join them when they are transferred from Cropper."

The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is continuing to move against former Ba'athists whom he claims are mounting a subversive threat to the government ahead of the 7 March general election. Over the past month, a pirate television channel touting Saddam's legacy has briefly hit the airwaves, along with newly erected banners of support in his hometown of Tikrit.

About 400 Sunni candidates have also been banned from contesting the poll as part of a push to rid alleged regime elements from government. The move has sparked fury among sections of the Sunni population and has been met with mounting concern by American officials who were preparing for a post-election mass withdrawal of US troops on the back of supposed security gains.

Contributor

Martin Chulov

The GuardianTramp

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