Saddam Hussein has always kept power in the family. But the attempted assassination of his son Uday shows that there are traitors within the inner circle of Iraq's close-knit ruling clan
Six weeks ago Uday, son of Saddam Hussein, was driving in his white Mercedes to what he called "a girl's party" in the wealthy Mansur district of Baghdad. He was accompanied by two cars filled with bodyguards. Near the entrance to a disused racecourse four gunmen sprayed his car with sub-machine-gun fire. "He was hit by eight bullets," says Hamed Yousef Hammadi, the Iraqi Information Minister. "That is no small thing."

The attempt to assassinate Uday was the latest episode in a series of feuds which have split Saddam's extended family, the basis of his power. The gunmen knew exactly where to wait because Ra'ad al-Hazaa, the nephew of a general who was executed in 1990, despite being a member of the ruling clan, told them the time and place of the party.

There have always been Iraqis willing to die in order to kill top members of the regime, but for the first time they were getting information from within the inner circle. Like the Yorkists in Richard III the relatives of Saddam Hussein are being consumed by infighting of ferocious savagery. The casualty list is impressive. Last year Uday organised the murders of Lt Gen Hussein Kamil and Saddam Kamil, both of whom were twice related to him as his cousins and brothers-in-law, and had unwisely returned from exile in Amman. The year before, Uday shot his uncle Watban, a former Interior Minister, through the leg at a drunken party beside the Tigris in Baghdad. Several gypsy dancers were killed at the same time.

With every killing there is hope among Saddam's many enemies that the regime's inner core is disintegrating. Last week an American official in Washington mentioned casually that Sajida, Saddam Hussein's wife, was under house arrest because she refused to forgive the deaths of Hussein Kamil and Saddam Kamil, and that there was turmoil in Baghdad. There may be some truth in this as it was officially denied by Iraq, which normally does not comment on such stories.

So far the rifts within the ruling family have not affected life in the streets of Baghdad. Qusai, Saddam Hussein's other son, has overall control of the security services. No form of dissent or minor infringement of the law escapes punishment. For instance the doctor who tended Watban, the half-brother of Saddam Hussein shot by Uday in 1995, returned each night, not to his home, but to prison. He was serving six-months for rigging up a satellite dish on his roof to receive foreign television broadcasts.

Nevertheless the present divisions are important because the regime which came to power in a military coup in 1968, engineered in part by Saddam, was always dependent on family or clan loyalties. The ruling elite are Sunni Muslims from the towns north of Baghdad on the Tigris and Euphrates. But the inner circle has a narrower base. They all come from Tikrit, a dreary town on the Tigris, previously famous only as the birthplace of Saladin and for long the ruling group has been known simply as "the Tikritis".

There is nothing extraordinary in the Arab world about a leader relying on his tribe, clan or family for the senior lieutenants of his regime. Saddam has followed the old Arab adage: "Me and my cousin against the world." But in Iraq his efforts to strengthen the bonds reached almost incestuous proportions. Sajida, Saddam Hussein's wife, is also his cousin. The unfortunate Lt Gen Hussein Kamil, at one time considered a likely successor to Saddam, was his paternal cousin and was married to his daughter Raghd.

Saddam's favourite film is said to be The Godfather with its romanticisation of the Mafia family. And, as in The Godfather, the violence which Saddam used to visit on his enemies has gradually turned inwards. In the 11 years up to 1979 when he became unchallenged leader of Iraq he marginalised other leaders, notably the first President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. In the 1980s his chief lieutenants were all interrelated. Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Ali Chemical", was notorious for gassing the Kurds. Another cousin, Adnan Kharallah Tulfah, the brother of Sajida, was Defence Minister until he was killed in a helicopter crash in 1989 which Iraqis believe, possibly wrongly, was intentional.

It was the rise of Uday, Saddam's elder son, however, which finally broke the solidarity of the inner family. In 1988 Saddam asked the Justice Minister to investigate the beating to death of his personal bodyguard Kamil Hanna Jajo by Uday, then 24, during a party at a discotheque on an island in the Tigris. Saddam said his son, who already had a reputation as a violent drunk, had three times tried to kill himself. In Baghdad the motive for the murder was said to be that Jajo was the go-between in an affair between Saddam and his mistress. Further evidence for this is that Sajida took Uday's side and went into self-imposed exile in Iraq or abroad.

Uday, released from prison after a week and sent to Switzerland, soon returned to Iraq. His rise to be his father's chief lieutenant was only briefly hindered. His headquarters was and is an eight-storey yellow building, officially the headquarters of the Iraqi Olympic Committee in Baghdad, which has guard towers in ancient Babylonian style. As Uday's power increased in the wake of Iraq's defeat in the Gulf war in 1991 he even maintained his own prison in the Olympic headquarters. Taxi drivers dislike driving past it.

It was two years ago that violence demonstrably touched members of the inner family. Again it started with a party. It was attended by a cousin and boon companion of Uday called Lu'ay. After an argument with Watban he called Uday on the telephone who came and shot his uncle. The same night Gen Hussein Kamil, the head of military industries, fled to Jordan along with his brother, the head of the palace guard. Opponents of the regime who visited him in Amman looking for support, said they found him stupid, a judgement confirmed when he returned to Baghdad under the mistaken impression he had been pardoned. In his last moments he stepped out of his house and pleaded for the lives of his children. The plea was rejected and they died alongside him. Uday attended the funeral of one of the attackers.

It is not only that Iraqis are terrified of Saddam, but they have come to fear that he is invulnerable, defeating Iran in the Iran/Iraq war and surviving his own defeat in the Gulf war. He has also had two important successes in the last six months: his tanks re-entered Kurdistan at the invitation of one of the Kurdish factions and Iraq has resumed limited oil exports. The United States was forced to wind-up its massive intelligence operation in Kurdistan and advise all Kurds connected with the US to leave.

But the attack on Uday shows that the rifts within the family are as serious ever. Gen Omar al-Hazaa was a clan leader in Tikrit who had been a divisional commander in the regular army. After retiring in the 1980s he became increasingly critical, particularly when drinking at the retired officers' club in the Yarmuk district of Baghdad. In 1990 he was arrested and taken to the village of Ouja just outside Tikrit where Saddam was born. His tongue was cut out and his son executed.

Seven years later Ra'ad al-Hazaa, his nephew, himself a former officer in the palace guard, took his revenge by providing vital intelligence to the would-be assassins of Uday. He now lies in hospital, reputedly with a bullet in his spine. Although the government put together 10 minutes of film for television showing Uday smiling and chatting with visitors, including cabinet ministers and security officials, the footage was clearly shot at different times since at moments he is bearded and then clean- shaven.

Could Sajida, Saddam Hussein's wife, now be under house arrest? It is possible. She was close to Uday. Some of her family believe that her brother, Adnan Kharallah Tulfah, was killed by Saddam who had his helicopter sabotaged (diplomats in Baghdad at the time were dubious, partly because there had been a sandstorm in the crash area). Last year she saw two of her daughters forcibly divorced from their husbands, who were then killed by a team directed by Uday. This operation could only have been carried out on the direct orders of Saddam. The Iraqi leader does not delegate important decisions.

Uday is now said by opposition groups to have married his 16-year-old cousin, the daughter of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is responsible for the deaths of almost 200,000 Kurds and was briefly governor of Kuwait. The aim is, presumably, to buttress the solidarity of the remnants of Saddam's family, but the marriage looks more like a desperate attempt to allay the fears and suspicions which have torn Iraq's ruling family apart.

In Shakespearean drama it is at this point that Saddam's remaining lieutenants would drop away, leaving him alone, baffled but defiant, like Richard III at Bosworth or Macbeth at Dunsinane. But senior members of the regime suffer from the same problem as Macbeth's doctor: "Were I from Dunsinane away and clear," he says, noting the boss's uncertain future. "Profit again should hardly draw me here." Saddam's supporters may find it equally difficult to desert him, however much they wish to do so.

Iraq's first family, before the mother of all feuds began. Since coming to power in 1979 Saddam Hussein's political appointments have always reflected the old Arab adage: 'Me and my cousin against the world' Lt Gen Hussein Kamil, once heir apparent to Saddam Hussein, his cousin and father-in-law. Fled to Jordan in 1995. Killed with his brother Saddam Kamil when they returned to Baghdad in 1996.

Saddam Hussein's

daughter Rana, divorced from Saddam Kamil

after he fled.

Uday, 32, in hospital believed to be paralysed after he was hit by eight bullets in an ambush on 12 December.

Saddam Hussein's

eldest daughter Raghd,

divorced from Hussein


Qusai, 30, Uday's younger brother, who supervises the intelligence services. He is now second in power only to Saddam.

Saddam Kamil, commander of palace guard, killed with his brother Hussein Kamil last year.

Sajida, cousin and wife of Saddam, possibly now under house arrest.

Saddam Hussein, 59, president of Iraq since 1979, architect of the coup which brought his regime to power