MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Central IraqIt was the third night of the war, and an excited Lt. Col. David Pere had some startling news: "Chemical Ali" was dead. Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of Saddam Hussein's top henchmen and the man who allegedly masterminded the 1988 chemical attack against the Kurds, had been killed that night when Marine jets struck his home in Amarah. Taking him out during the war's opening days would be a significant coup, and Pere was convinced that the raid had been a success. "Chemical Ali," he said, "is no longer breathing air."
As it turned out, his lungs were fully functional. Al-Majid had in fact dodged U.S. missiles trained on him for the second time in three days, the first coming during a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on the war's opening night. And since then, Chemical Ali has remained a slippery figureeluding at least two more attempts by coalition forces to capture or kill him. Like the villain in a B-movie, Chemical Ali has become the man who will not die. "This guy's like Freddy Krueger," says Col. Larry Brown, operations chief for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "We've killed him like four or five times."
Fearful of again being burned, top U.S. officers are even knocking down reports by British officials that Chemical Ali was killed by U.S. Air Force strikes in Basra on Saturday. Several military sources say that despite being wounded during the raid, he most likely escaped and is still at large in southern Iraq. "I don't think he's dead, but I think he's hurt bad and he's been neutralized," says a senior 1MEF official. U.S. officials are even chasing reports that al-Majid is still in the city of Basra and may have chemical agents in his possession.
There is little dispute that Chemical Aliwho is a cousin of Saddam'swas inside the Basra compound during Saturday's raid. Coalition officials were tipped about al-Majid's movements by human intelligence sources, who provided information about when he and other top Baath Party officials would be at the targeted location. Two U.S. Air Force F-16s dropped laser-guided bombs on a residence in Basra, killing several of the Baath officials gathered there. "We made a positive ID on the target that was described," says Marine Maj. Bryant Sewall, the forward air controller who coordinated the strike. According to Sewall, the original plan was to drop JDAM satellite-guided bombs on the target, but fear of collateral damage in the residential neighborhood kept commanders from authorizing the 1,000-pound bombs. Instead, the F-16s dropped six 500-pound laser-guided bombs on the Basra compound. "I talked them onto the target," says Sewall. "As forward air controller, I cleared them hot."
The mission was declared a success, and one British officer on Monday even confirmed that coalition forces had identified al-Majid's body amid the rubble. The officer, Maj. Andrew Jackson of the British 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment, said this was one of the reasons British forces decided to move into Basra on Sunday, after remaining on the city's outskirts for several weeks.
Saddam had recently appointed al-Majid military commander of Iraq's southern region, and British officials hoped that resistance in the southern Iraqi city might weaken with the top Baath Party leadership gone. Saturday's raid even drew comments from British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon. "We have some strong indications that he was killed in the raid," said Hoon. "I cannot yet absolutely confirm the fact that he [al-Majid] is dead, but that would certainly [be] my best judgment of the situation." Coalition forces are trying to identify the remains of all who were killed in Saturday's strike, yet U.S. officials are now backing off Major Jackson's statement that al-Majid is unequivocally dead.
At Marine headquarters, most officers are reserving their judgment until they have caught Chemical Ali alive or have DNA proof of his death. Many expect they haven't seen the last of Ali al-Majid. "The thing about Chemical Ali is that he's got such a great name," says Lieutenant Colonel Pere. "He's everywhere."