Dinner at Saddam's sparked defections

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The Independent Online

The defection of two sons-in-law of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and their wives to Jordan began with a row at a family dinner which led to a shooting incident, according to an account published by an Arabic newspaper in London.

Asharq al-Awsat, a daily owned by the Saudi royal family, said its source was an aide to Major General Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, former minister of military industry and the husband of President Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghad. He and his brother Saddam Kamel Hassan al-Majid, a colonel in the Iraqi missile forces who is married to another Saddam daughter, Rana, fled to Jordan with their wives last week.

According to the Arabic-language newspaper's account, it was an attempt by the Iraqi dictator to start a discussion of problems caused by sanctions which led to the falling-out in his inner circle.

At a dinner in his stronghold, Takrit, on Monday last week, he asked his guests, the leaders of the ruling Takriti family, what could to be done to rescue Iraq from economic hardship and lift the sanctions imposed by the UN. A heated exchange followed between factions of the family, in which President Saddam's two sons, Uday and Qusay, were on one side, and the president's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim, and his son, Ahmad, on the other. They traded accusations about who was responsible for the policies which led to the US refusal to enter into dialogue with Baghdad.

Although President Saddam trusts his half-brother implicitly, Mr Ibrahim was forced to resign as interior minister a few weeks ago to "take responsibility" for the latest failure to escape sanctions. At the dinner, Mr Ibrahim defended his cousin, the former minister of defence, Ali Hassan al-Magid, removed at the same time, and told President Saddam that they should not be the only scapegoats. The rest of the cabinet should have been sacked as well, he said.

As minister of military industry, General Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid was in charge of the projects - nuclear weapons research, chemical weapons and the "supergun" programme - which have caused the UN to continue sanctions. Mr Ibrahim's accusation was that General al-Majid had chosen aides who had inadvertently given the Americans too much information.

The president's half-brother also criticised the behaviour of President Saddam's two sons, especially Uday's editorials in his newspaper, Babel, which he said had generated anti-Iraqi feeling in the Gulf. Uday responded so angrily that his father asked him to leave the room. The row brought the dinner to an end, but was followed by an incident at Mr Ibrahim's house in which security men, sent by Uday and General al-Majid, opened fire, wounding Mr Ibrahim. President Saddam believed his son-in-law had failed to respond adequately to the accusations against him, however.

Suspecting disloyalty, he instituted a search for General al-Majid the next day, but intelligence services reported that a convoy of 30 cars and 15 vans, escorted by General al-Majid's motorcycle bodyguards, had crossed into Jordan at dawn. Both sons-in-law had decided it was wiser to defect than stay in Iraq.

The Jordanians kept silent at first, which encouraged President Saddam to send his son to investigate, but an announcement of the defection, and the granting of asylum to two of the dictator's daughters and their husbands, came before Uday could begin talks. As a result, the disunity at the heart of the murderous clan ruling Iraq had been irretrievably exposed.

The defection has heightened tension between Iraq and the US. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is anchored off the Israeli port of Haifa and will take part in war games with Jordan. Pentagon officials said that US forces were being built up in and around the Gulf after the detection of "unusual" military movements near Kuwait which began five weeks ago. Kuwaiti officials denied any unusual activity was occurring.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that two senior US officials visiting the region would try to persuade Jordan to cut economic links with Iraq, with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait being asked to supply the oil Jordan gets from Iraq. The paper said the plan would be presented by Robert Pelletreau, an Assistant Secretary of State, and Mark Parris, Special Assistant to the President, who arrived in Amman yesterday.

In Baghdad, the UN disarmament chief, Rolf Ekeus, said Iraq provided new information yesterday on its biological and nuclear weapons. He met with Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, who had invited Mr Ekeus to visit "urgently'' after the al-Majids' defections. The material was being assessed.