The Ali Hassan al-Majid anticlimax


When a mass murderer dies, it is usually an anticlimax. At his hanging this week, Ali Hassan al-Majid, the cousin of Saddam Hussein, had only ambient impassiveness to serenade him into the pit. A photograph was released by the Iraqiyah television station showing Majid dressed in an orange jumpsuit, minutes before death. Otherwise, there was an evasiveness and expediency to the execution that, for all the rules of due process it violated, was paradoxically fitting for so brutal a man.

I first heard the name Ali Hassan al-Majid in 1991. As I recall, a video filmed by the Iraqi Army was obtained, then distributed, by the Iraqi opposition. It showed Majid leading the suppression of Shiites in the aftermath of the Gulf war, when Saddam, having been expelled by President George H. W. Bush from Kuwait, was allowed to slaughter his own people. The video showed Majid ordering soldiers to be merciless, then walking through a field to be shown bound Shiite prisoners. One began to shout the fatiha, prompting an officer to pull out a gun as if preparing to shoot him. The prisoners were later executed nearby.

The unrelenting grimness of the scene, the certitude the prisoners surely had that their time was up, since they had become a trade fair exhibition for a man whose commerce was death, was difficult to shake off. And yet within no time Arab publicists had done precisely that, as their outrage was turned against the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the United Nations. And when Saddam transformed that regime into an instrument to reinforce his authority and wealth, the publicists’ amnesia returned, their outrage displaced to condemn America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Displacement has been a useful aspect of the Arab mindset when the region has considered Iraq. Take Majid’s orange jumpsuit. How appropriate that this was Al-Qaeda’s fashion of choice for the hostages it once decapitated. And yet how many people in the Arab world allowed their outrage with America to displace what should have been their disgust with Al-Qaeda, still rewarded with the designation of “resistance,” despite its ongoing deployment of suicide bombers to murder civilians and deny Iraqis a normal life.

On the same day that Majid was hanged, he was sent off with a drum roll of devastating attacks against three Iraqi hotels. The carnage continued on Tuesday, and a convergence of factors has pushed the Arab world and the United States to take a relatively low-key approach to these crimes. Vice President Joe Biden flew from Washington to Baghdad to encourage Iraqi leaders to avoid a rift over the 511 mostly Sunni candidates barred from the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, when it comes to the suicide bombings, all American officials can seem to say, with studied detachment, is that these were expected in the pre-election period.

The only thing in Iraq that truly interests the Obama administration these days is the American military withdrawal. Washington’s haste is creating a vacuum that Iraq’s neighbors are seeking to fill to their own advantage. That’s why American aloofness is shameful: The attacks are directly linked to the US pullout, and the suicide bombers are either transiting through Syria, or are Iraqis financed by Baathist networks there. This is well known, and has been confirmed by Iraqi and US officials. However, both the US and the Arab states have no interest in highlighting that fact: the Americans because they don’t want to complicate their departure; the Arabs because there is a consensus among Middle Eastern regimes that a Shiite-dominated order in Baghdad ultimately threatens their power.

We’re back full circle to the ambiguous American relationship with the Arab world’s Sunnis, and those of Iraq particularly. That’s not to say that the Obama administration has decided to entirely disregard Sunni violence directed against Shiites. Things are more subtle than that. Given the growing fear in Washington of Iranian predominance in the Gulf, and the reality that the American exit from Iraq could very well facilitate this, the US has fallen back on an old instinct: a reluctance to challenge the Sunni-dominated regimes opposing Tehran, and that includes in Iraq.

The Americans have also been apathetic toward Syria’s actions directed against its eastern neighbor. The Obama administration knows the only way of bringing about “behavior change” in Syria is to take the Assad regime on politically and militarily. Given the Arab mood and new US priorities, not least Barack Obama’s Afghanistan campaign, Washington has neither the regional support nor the wherewithal to do this. So, the administration calls for “dialogue” between Baghdad and Damascus, which in Syrian parlance means intensifying Iraq’s destabilization.

That explains the dispatch with which the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hanged Ali Hassan al-Majid, even though President Jalal Talabani refused to sign off on the execution order. There was much symbolism in that discord. Majid was condemned for several crimes, including the Anfal campaigns of 1988 against the Kurds, which included the chemical weapons attack against Halabja, as well as the crushing of the Shiites in 1991. That Talabani, a Kurd, disagreed with Maliki, a Shiite, over the death sentence was interesting and in a way disconcerting. But it also said much about where both men are today.

Talabani and the Kurds have come a long way since Anfal, winning considerable autonomy and influence in an Iraq they often appear to have the option of taking or leaving. But Maliki suffers from two sets of insecurities: he is facing an electoral challenge from within his own Shiite community, and Shiites in general know that the Arab world is not close to accepting their takeover of power in Baghdad. That Majid should have been used as a ball to be kicked around in this developing game of affirmation was apt, even if the legal form was wanting. It was another knife in Saddam’s legacy.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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