How important is capture of 'Ali'?

Catching key Hussein aide is a coup - but isn't likely to stem violence.

There aren't many top leaders of the Saddam Hussein regime still at large.

Thursday's capture of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the infamous "Chemical Ali," means that 39 of the 55 people on the United States' list of most-wanted Iraqis are now accounted for.

The capture or death of rulers of the old Iraq does not seem to have improved the nation's security - at least, not yet. Wednesday's bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters is tragic evidence of that.

Nevertheless the elimination of these symbols of Hussein's rule may send an important signal of intent to ordinary Iraq citizens.

"It is extremely important for Iraqis to see those people are all picked up," says David Newton, a former US ambassador to Iraq.

Mr. Majid was number five on the US list - the highest ranking Iraqi fugitive, other than No. 1, Hussein himself.

A relative of Hussein, Majid was notorious for his role in directing chemical weapons attacks against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq in the late 1980s.

On Thursday, the US military announced that he was in custody, but it was not immediately clear when or how he had been captured, or where he was being held.

During the battle for control of Iraq last spring, US commanders thought for a time that they had killed Majid in an airstrike on a house in the south of the country. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went so far as to publicly proclaim that "the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end."

But shortly thereafter, interrogations of Iraqi prisoners indicated that Majid was still at large.

Majid is a paternal first cousin of Hussein and a longtime member of Iraq's inner circle.

Before the 1968 Baathist Party revolution, he was a simple Army noncommissioned officer. But as a secret member of the party, and Hussein intimate, Chemical Ali rose rapidly following the overthrow of President Abdel-Salim Arif.

After Hussein seized power in 1979, he promoted his relative to full general. By the mid-1980s he was a key member of the military and intelligence councils that ran the country.

MAJID has also been called "Butcher of the Kurds" for his brutality against Kurdish groups that sought autonomy in northern Iraq through the 1980s.

Some 4,000 Kurdish villages were razed at Majid's behest, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were relocated elsewhere in the country. In March 1988, 5,000 people died in the border town of Halabja when it was bombed and shelled with cyanide gas.

Appointed interior minister in 1991, he was part of a delegation that met with Kurdish leaders. When they said that by their calculation 182,00 Kurds had disappeared during Majid's reign of terror, he rose to his feet in indignation.

"What is this exaggerated figure of 182,000? It couldn't have been more than 100,000," he said, according to the book "Out of the Ashes" by Andrew and Patrick Cockburn.

"Whenever people were slaughtered - Kuwait, southern Iraq, or the Kurds - Chemical Ali ran the operation," says David Newton, who is now head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The capture of Majid and such other leaders as former Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan is important in itself, say analysts.

But more important may be the hunt for smaller fish, who appear to be directing the resistance to the US by regime remnants.

"There are much more significant numbers of mid-level Baathists who are being tracked down and either killed or captured every day," says Richard Shultz, director of the International Security Program at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "At some point that's going to ... deescalate this hit-and-run war that they're conducting against the US."

Majid's capture also may indicate that the US intelligence system is being to take hold. He was apparently captured as the result of a tip about his whereabouts.

"That means that we've got human intelligence sources that in this huge nation of 25 millionpeople are telling us where to go look," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey, professor of international security studies at West Point. "And that can't happen unless the people are beginning to believe that we're going to be there, that they're not going to be thrown back into the hands of these cruel people."

Still, at this point, violence continues virtually unabated in Iraq, indicating that the US has a lot more to do than just catch Hussein's former lieutenants.

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