By Robin Gedye, Foreign Affairs Writer
"Chemical Ali", a mass killer and one of the great survivors of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, even outlived reports of his own death, it emerged yesterday when his capture was revealed.
Ali Hassan al-Majid, a feared cousin of Saddam and No 5 - the King of Spades - in America's "most wanted" list, was reported killed in the early stages of the war in Iraq.
He was said to have died in a bomb attack by British forces in Basra, but the Pentagon was never able to match DNA to the body.
Even so, Kurds celebrated the death of a man who was given his sobriquet after he ordered the chemical attack on Kurdish rebels in 1988 that left 5,000 dead and 10,000 injured.
His capture, while something of an embarrassment to those who had proclaimed him dead, is a vital boost for those hunting down the 55 Iraqis on America's list.
The seizure leaves only 13 of the "pack of cards" at large, including Saddam, and is the most significant development since Saddam's sons Qusay and Uday died during a siege at their hideout four weeks ago.
British military officials were confident that al-Majid was killed in April during an air strike on Ba'ath party offices in Basra after he had been seen entering them.
Special forces troops noted the building and called in a Harrier jump-jet armed with laser-guided weapons.
The corpses of al-Majid's bodyguards were positively identified, but a body believed to be al-Majid's was identified only by being shown to a number of trusted local officials. They told British troops that they were certain it was him.
But almost immediately reports circulated that he had been seen escaping in a boat across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway south of Basra. A nurse in Baghdad said he had been in a hospital there several days later, joking with staff, before escaping.
American military officials were reluctant to pronounce him dead although, under pressure from the British, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, eventually conceded that he believed "the reign of terror of Chemical Ali has come to an end".
Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told reporters in June that interrogations of Iraqi prisoners indicated that al-Majid might still be alive.
US Central Command in Florida yesterday confirmed his capture, although no details were available.
Al-Majid was placed in charge of defending southern Iraq on the eve of the invasion of Iraq last March, in a move seen as a coded threat to the coalition that chemical weapons would be used.
Part of Saddam's "inner circle", al-Majid was said to form the "fourth pillar" of the regime together with Saddam and his two sons.
Combining absolute ruthlessness with effective organisational abilities he became the most feared provincial leader. Saddam's paternal first cousin and a former army sergeant, al-Majid was part of the "Jihaz Haneen", or "apparatus of yearning", the secret intelligence organisation Saddam formed inside the Ba'ath party to eliminate rivals and traitors and carry out assassinations.
It played a key role in the coup on July 17, 1968, that overthrew President Abdel-Salim Arif and thrust Saddam securely on the path to power.
Appointed secretary general of the Ba'ath Northern Bureau in 1987, al-Majid was in charge of suppressing and punishing Kurds who had rebelled against Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war. He presided over the eventual slaughter of 200,000 Kurds.
His unfettered brutality earned him further notoriety when, in 1995, he ordered the murder of his nieces' husbands, Hussein and Saddam Kamel - married to Saddam Hussein's daughters - after they returned from Jordan on being promised that they would not be punished for their defection.