BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Saddam Hussein's cousin, widely known as "Chemical Ali", was sentenced on Sunday to hang for masterminding a genocidal military campaign that used poison gas against Iraq's Kurds in the 1980s.
Ali Hassan al-Majeed, looking frail and wearing traditional Arab robes, stood silently as the judge read the verdict. As he was escorted from the Baghdad courtroom, he said: "Thanks be to God."
"This is judgment day for the aggressors against the Kurdish people," said Namiq Horamy, as he handed out sweets to colleagues in Kurdistan's Ministry of Martyrs, which looks after victims of the campaign.
Majeed, whose very name once sparked fear among Iraqis, directed a military campaign against the Kurdish north in which chemical weapons were used, villages demolished, agricultural lands destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.
The court also sentenced to death Saddam's defense minister, Sultan Hashim, and a former military commander for their roles in the campaign. Two other commanders received life in prison. Charges were dropped against the former governor of Mosul.
Saddam was the seventh defendant, until his execution in December in a separate trial for crimes against humanity.
Kurds have long sought justice for the so-called Anfal or "Spoils of War" campaign that has left lasting scars on their mountainous region. Prosecutors say up to 180,000 people were killed in the seven-month "scorched-earth" operation in 1988.
In a packed visitors gallery overlooking the court, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, and leaders of the largely autonomous Kurdish region watched the verdict being delivered. A witness described their reaction as one of "quiet satisfaction".
Kurds are a powerful political force in post-Saddam Iraq. They have the presidency and ministers in Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet and Kurdistan enjoys a large degree of autonomy from Baghdad.
"As soon as I heard Ali Hassan al-Majeed and Sultan Hashim had received the death sentence I was ecstatic and I began to scream. But the bigger joy would be to see Majeed executed in Kurdistan," said Shaheen Mahmoud, a Kurdish civil servant, in the northern city of Sulaimaniya.
The International Center for Transitional Justice, a New-York based legal rights groups, said while the trial was a historic day for Kurds it was marred by political interference and fell short of international fair trial standards.
Those convicted can appeal against the verdicts.
Majeed was viewed as Saddam's main enforcer, a man with a reputation for brutality who was used by the president to crush dissent. He also played a leading role in stamping out a Shi'ite rebellion in the south after the 1991 Gulf War.
During Anfal, thousands of villages were bombed and razed. Thousands of villagers were deported, many executed. Mustard gas and nerve agents were used to clear villages, earning Majeed his grim nickname "Chemical Ali".
"You issued orders to troops to use all weapons including chemical weapons that killed thousands, displaced thousands and detained many who later died of hunger, torture and diseases. Many disappeared," judge Mohammed al-Uraibi told Majeed.
"You committed crimes against humanity ... You committed genocide. There are enough documents against you."
Majeed, now in his mid-60s, admitted during the trial he ordered troops to execute Kurds who ignored orders to leave their villages but not to the use of poison gas.
The defendants have said Anfal had legitimate military targets -- Kurdish guerrillas who had sided with Iran during the last stage of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war.
"We defended Iraq and we were not criminals," said Hussein Rashid, the Iraqi army's former deputy commander of operations, interrupting the judge as he read the verdict. He was also sentenced to death.
Historians say Saddam sought to make an example of the rebellious Kurds, who make up 20 percent of the population, to deter opponents of his regime and show them what happened to those who defied his authority.
additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil