Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of the most brutal members of President Saddam Hussein's inner circle, was apparently killed by an airstrike on his house in Basra, British officials said Monday. He had been dubbed "Chemical Ali" by opponents for ordering a 1988 poison gas attack that killed thousands of Kurds.

Maj. Andrew Jackson of the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment told The Associated Press that his superiors had reported the death of the man who was Saddam's first cousin, entrusted with defending southern Iraq against invading coalition forces.

Al-Majid apparently was killed on Saturday when two coalition aircraft used laser-guided munitions to attack his house in Basra. Jackson said a body that was thought to be his was found along with that of his bodyguard and the head of Iraqi intelligence services in Basra.

"We have some strong indications that he was killed in the raid," said British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon. "I cannot yet absolutely confirm the fact that he (al-Majid) is dead, but that would certainly my best judgment of the situation."

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, at a daily briefing in Qatar, said he did not have any confirmed reports on whether al-Majid was dead.

Brooks said the coalition had seen evidence of Iraqi leaders in their homes recently and "we believe that Ali Hassan al-Majid — 'Chemical Ali" — may have been in a home.

"Where we have the opportunity, we may direct an attack against that," he said.

Jackson said the apparent discovery of al-Majid's body was one of the reasons the British decided to move infantry into Basra, because they hoped that resistance in the southern Iraqi city might crumble with the top leadership gone.

"The regime is finished. It is over, and liberation is here," said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, spokesman for British forces in the Gulf. "The leadership is now gone in southern Iraq."

Believed to be in his fifties, al-Majid led a 1988 campaign against rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq in which whole villages were wiped out. An estimated 100,000 Kurds, mostly civilians, were killed.

Al-Majid also has been linked to the bloody crackdown on Shiites in southern Iraq after their uprising following the 1991 Gulf War. Prior to that, he served as governor of Kuwait during Iraq's seven-month occupation of its neighbor in 1990-1991 — an invasion that led to the Gulf War.

Human rights groups had called for al-Majid's arrest on war crimes charges when he toured Arab capitals last January seeking to rally support against mounting U.S. pressure on Saddam's regime.

"Al-Majid is Saddam Hussein's hatchet man," Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch in New York, said at the time. "He has been involved in some of Iraq's worst crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity."

Hazem al-Youssefi, Cairo representative of the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, described al-Majid as a standout in a regime of criminals.

Al-Majid was a warrant officer and motorcycle messenger in the army before Saddam's Baath party led a coup in 1968. He was promoted to general and served as defense minister from 1991-95, as well as a regional party leader.

In 1988, as the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was winding down, he commanded a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. Later, he boasted about the attacks, including the March 16, 1988, poison gas strike on the village of Halabja, where an estimated 5,000 people died.

During April 1991 peace talks in Baghdad, the Kurdish delegation leader, Jalal Talabani, told al-Majid that more than 200,000 Kurds lost their lives in the Iraqi campaign. Al-Majid replied that the figure was exaggerated and the dead were not more than 100,000, according to Arab press reports.

After Iraq's 1991 Shiite Muslim uprising was crushed, Iraqi opposition groups released a video they said had been smuggled out of southern Iraq. In the video, which was shown on several Arab TV networks, al-Majid was seen executing captured rebels with pistol shots to the head and kicking others in the face as they sat on the ground.

He was no less brutal with his own family.

His nephew and Saddam's son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, was in charge for many years of Iraq's clandestine weapons programs before defecting in 1995 to Jordan with his brother, Saddam Kamel, who was married to Saddam's other daughter.

Both brothers were lured back to Iraq in February 1996 and killed on their uncle's orders, together with several other family members.

Syria and Lebanon ignored international calls to arrest al-Majid when he visited in January. He dropped scheduled stops in Jordan and Egypt — both U.S. allies. Egypt refused to receive him and the Jordanian government denied a visit was ever planned.