Advances by U.S. and British troops into southern Iraq on Friday chipped away at the base of one of Saddam Hussein's most notorious lieutenants, a man known as "Chemical Ali" who pioneered the regime's use of chemical warfare against civilians and who has been charged with defending the area now under attack.
The resume of Ali Hassan Majid, Hussein's cousin, includes the killing by chemical gas of thousands of Kurds in 1988, the brutal occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the torture and repression of Shiite Muslims after a revolt that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"A lot of people want to see him take the stand" in The Hague for violating basic human rights, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, a Middle East specialist with Human Rights International. "If there's any such thing as a slam dunk in this kind of thing, he's a slam dunk."
Majid received his latest assignment a few months ago when Hussein divided the nation into four defensive zones and handed him control over the southernmost part of the country, directly facing the 230,000 U.S. and British troops amassing in northern Kuwait.
Majid brought little to the assignment in the way of innovative defensive planning. But he did offer absolute loyalty to his boss and an ability to maintain a repressive grip on the Iraqi people.
One of Hussein's worst nightmares, analysts have said, would be for residents of southern Iraqi cities to rise up and throw off Hussein's ruling Baath Socialist Party, in the process encouraging disenchanted Iraqis all over the country to follow suit.
"His job is to keep the people in the south under control as long as possible without rebellion," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The last thing Saddam Hussein wants to see is Basra rising up on its own and start hanging Baath officials on every lamppost."
Given Majid's pioneering use of chemical weapons against the Kurds using low-flying helicopters around the northern city of Halabja in 1988, some have concluded that Majid's appointment signaled Hussein's intention to launch chemical weapons in southern Iraq early in the fight against U.S. forces.
But that overlooked several factors, some experts argue. The Bush administration could have gained a lot more sympathy, as even the French have signaled, if chemical and biological weapons were in evidence. And any weapons of mass destruction might instead be used as a last resort when invading troops near Baghdad.
"They were not used to clear an area as part of the ground war in the Iran-Iraq war," Clawson said. "They were used when the other side was breaking through, to considerable effect."
Over a long career in Hussein's service, Majid has served as Iraq's minister of defense and the interior, security chief, military governor of Kuwait in 1990 and director of the Revolutionary Command Council.
In 1983, Hussein asked Majid to avenge an assassination attempt against the dictator. Majid complied by killing dozens of residents and otherwise destroying the town of Dujail, reportedly the home of the would-be assassins.
In 1988, he killed an estimated 5,000 Kurds and wounded twice that many in gas attacks. He later ordered that 182,000 Kurds be rounded up under operation "Al Anfal," which means "the spoils." Most disappeared, and he was caught on tape in 1989 bragging that he had them buried in mass graves using mechanical shovels.
Araz Mohamed Amin, a Kurdish computer engineer living in Holland, lost 13 relatives in the late 1980s atrocities, including his uncle, aunt and cousin. "Their bodies were never found," he said. "Another uncle went blind in both eyes. My 28-year-old nephew has 70% of his lungs burned."
Audiotapes of Baath party meetings in 1988 and 1989 revealed a jubilant Majid. "I cannot let your village stay because I will attack it with chemical weapons," he is heard saying on a tape dated May 26, 1988. "I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community?"
In 1991, he was transferred to southern Iraq to put down a Shiite rebellion as Iraqi tanks under his command rolled into southern villages under the slogan "No more Shiites after today."
In September, Majid visited Algeria, Libya and Tunisia in his first known overseas trip in 15 years, prompting speculation that he was scouting a home in exile for Hussein, his family and key members of the regime.