Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons to put down an Iraqi Kurd insurrection in 1988, “joked and flirted in a Baghdad hospital as the capital fell before making his escape,” hospital officials told Reuters on Thursday.
Coalition officials had said that al-Majid likely died on April 5 when coalition warplanes used laser-guided munitions to attack his home in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, but stopped short of officially confirming his death.
“As far as Ali Hassan al-Majid is concerned, we have some strong indications that he was killed in the raid,” British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said at the time. “I cannot yet absolutely confirm the fact that he is dead, but that would certainly my best judgment of the situation.”
Al-Majid, a close confident and first cousin of Saddam Hussein, was the commander of Iraq’s southern defenses and a main target of coalition forces during the war. He is number 5 on the U.S. list of 55 most wanted Iraqis.
The news of al-Majid’s potential survival comes during an upswing in military action in Iraq and as coalition forces continue to suffer casualties as they try to deal with pockets of resistance within the country.
Assaults and ambushes have killed nine American soldiers in the past two weeks, even as U.S. commanders have stepped up patrols and sent in reinforcements.
“The remnants of the Iraqi regime, the Fedayeen Saddam and the Ba’athist, and some very likely Special Republican Guard folks, are still there, and they are the ones that are periodically attacking coalition forces — sometimes successfully,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
“It will take time to root out the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, and we intend to do it,” Rumsfeld added.
On Thursday, a U.S. Apache helicopter gunship from the 101st Airborne Division was shot down around midnight local time by a rocket-propelled grenade a few hours after U.S. fighters attacked what Central Command officials described as a terrorist camp 95 miles north of Baghdad, according to the Associated Press.
Two additional Apache helicopters “assisted in engaging irregular forces in the vicinity of the downed aircraft,” and coalition ground troops recovered the helicopter’s “uninjured two-member crew,” Central Command said in a statement.
In a Sunni Muslim enclave closer to Baghdad, U.S. forces continued a major operation designed to quell hostile activity in the region.
In the third day of “Operation Peninsula Strike,” the largest military operation since the end of the war, “thousands of American troops swept through an area centered on the Tigris River town of Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad,” killing 15 Iraqis and capturing some 400 more, the AP reported.
No Americans have been killed in the operation, Central Command spokesman Lt. Ryan Fitzgerald told the AP.
Fitzgerald said the U.S. is interrogating the captured Iraqis, adding, “If we believe they’re dangerous and will cause problems for the Iraqi people or coalition forces, we’ll keep them for further information.”
On Wednesday Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi blamed Saddam Hussein, who he said had survived U.S. strikes, for recent attacks on U.S. soldiers.
“Saddam has organized a network of his supporters whom he can amply pay to make operations against United States forces and they are doing it,” Chalabi told the NewsHour. “They are doing it in areas where his supporters are based, and they are moving as they become more successful moving to do it in Baghdad.”
Chalabi said that Saddam is paying bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers, and is roaming an area northwest of the capital.
“We believe that he is moving in an arc northwest of Baghdad across the Tigris around the Tikrit area and towards the West,” Chalabi said. “It’s a large area.”
Chalabi said U.S. officials are aware of Saddam’s purported activities.