Iraq's Fractured, Frightened First Family: Defections of His Two Sons-in-Law Presage the End for Saddam Hussain

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Iraq's Fractured, Frightened First Family: Defections of His Two Sons-in-Law Presage the End for Saddam Hussain

By Richard H. Curtiss

The 60,000 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered during the Gulf war begged their Saudi internment camp guards not to allow journalists to photograph their faces or use their names in interviews. They were convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussain's execution squads, who roamed the desert between the Iraqi frontline in Kuwait and the Iraqi homeland looking for deserters to shoot, would visit the homes of anyone identified as having surrendered. The women, the Iraqis said, first would be raped and then the prisoner's entire family would be executed.

How often this actually happened will not be known until Saddam's tyrannical rule comes to an end. Only then can the horror stories that trickle out of a country that has been largely sealed off from the rest of the world for more than a quarter of a century be evaluated. Meanwhile, however, it seems unlikely that execution squads will be visiting the immediate family of the latest party of defectors, who swept into Jordan on Aug. 7 in a caravan of Iraqi government Mercedes limousines complete with machine-gun-toting security guards and uniformed aides. In command was Saddam's cousin, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed, said to be in charge of Iraq's entire military industrial establishment. Accompanying him was his younger brother, Col. Saddam Kamel Hassan Majeed, head of Saddam's personal security guard, and their wives, Raghda and Rana, the two eldest of Saddam's three daughters.

As perhaps the most powerful man in the country after Saddam and his two sons, Uday, 32, and Qusay, 30, General Kamel had no trouble leaving Iraq. He told border guards his party was headed for a short vacation in Amman, which has a resident Iraqi population of 30,000 people that grows daily as life becomes harder in Baghdad. Nor did King Hussein of Jordan hesitate for long in granting him asylum. The gesture that altered forever his friendly, but increasingly inconvenient, relationship with Saddam Hussain could not have come at a more convenient time.

Although the king was said to have telephoned President Bill Clinton to obtain an assurance of U.S. support in case of Iraqi retaliation, he did not hesitate to put up the party in a royal guest house, grant General Hussein Kamel a microphone to talk to the international press, and then hustle them all into hiding, where high-level intelligence directors from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and probably other countries began making calls.

As the man in charge of all of Iraq's war industries, General Kamel was at the heart of decisions within the Iraqi government over what to reveal and what to withhold from United Nations inspectors about Iraq's program to manufacture weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical and biological. Analysts initially tried to relate the sudden defection to a policy dispute at the highest levels of the Iraqi government over what should be revealed in order to get the ruinous U.N. embargo lifted. Such a dispute, analysts said, would explain seeming inconsistencies in prior admissions on the subject by the Iraqi government.

A family dinner called by Saddam ended in gunfire.

In the Middle East, however, political events soon take on a commonly accepted history, or mythology, of their own. Within 10 days of the defection a major Saudiowned daily newspaper, Ash Sharq al-Awsat, reported that the defection followed an intra-family dispute that broke out at a family dinner called by Saddam, and ended in gunfire later in the evening. According to the newspaper's account, the dinner was held in Takrit, the family's ancestral village on the upper Tigris River, to discuss Iraq's deteriorating economic and security situation. At the dinner President Saddam's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim Takriti, whom Saddam had dismissed as interior minister on May 22, angrily blamed General Hussein Kamel and Saddam's powerful and impulsive eldest son, Uday, begging Saddam to dismiss them both. …