Saddam Hussein's cousin, also known as "Chemical Ali," was sentenced to death by an Iraqi high court today. He stood motionless, saying simply, "Thanks be to God," following the verdict.
Ali Hassan al-Majid and two other senior Iraqi officials were sentenced to hanging for genocide and war crimes for the two-year campaign against Iraqi Kurds, code named "Anfal" — Arabic for "spoils of war" — in which an estimated 180,000 Kurds were killed. The notorious attack that earned him his name — a chemical attack that killed 5,000 in the Kurdish village of Halabja — was not included in the charges.
Yet, in the streets of Halabja, residents celebrated, visiting the graves of relatives killed in the attacks and slaying sheep for feasts.
The sentence could have troubling implications for the sectarian conflict between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Following the botched December 30 hanging of Saddam Hussein, the pending execution of another Sunni leader threatens to set back efforts at national reconciliation and to incite more sectarian attacks.
"What it will do is remind people of it and intensify the fears of Sunnis that the government and the courts are essentially sectarian at heart," said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"And they are not courts of justice, but courts of victors. And that's problematic when you are trying to build a central authority that has the support of all Iraqis, including, especially, Sunni Iraqis."
As the verdict was read, Sunni insurgents in cities throughout central Iraq were targeted by the largest military campaign since the American invasion in 2003. Operation Phantom Thunder is a multi-pronged attack on several sites, including Baqouba in restive Diyala province, Anbar province to the west, the capital itself, and a belt of suburbs to the south of Baghdad.
Among those sites is the town of Doura, where more than 2,000 American troops and 1,000 Iraqi security forces are fighting to take back an al Qaeda stronghold along the Tigris River.
Four U.S. soldiers and 17 Iraqi troops have been killed in the battle in Doura over the past 10 days. Troops there have captured 142 suspected insurgents and killed 14.
That campaign threatens to be long and dangerous. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the 3rd Infantry Division commander who oversees the campaign in Doura, said he expects the fighting in that region to continue through at least the end of July.
"By the end of the mission, it'll be a stabilized area," Lynch said. "The enemy will not be using it as a sanctuary."
Lynch hopes to rely on Iraqi soldiers and police to hold the region. But he acknowledged that there are not enough Iraqi security forces involved in the operation now, and more would need to be recruited.