Saddam plays King Lear as ungrateful daughters flee

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"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" King Lear shrieked when he had daughter problems. For Goneril and Regan, read Ragha Kamel, favourite daughter of Saddam Hussein, and her younger sister Rana.

Further evidence of the decay of the regime of the world's favourite tyrant has emerged: the defection to Jordan not only of Ragha and Rana but their husbands, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, former minister of industry and weapons procurement, and Colonel Saddam Kamel, an officer in the Iraqi missile forces.

Last night Saddam's eldest son Udai - best known for murdering his own bodyguard during a drunken brawl - was in Amman in a sensational but vain attempt to persuade King Hussein to send the two women and their husbands back to Baghdad. Udai was seen driving to the royal court in Amman, apparently on his father's orders, but Jordanian officials said his demand for his sisters' return would not be granted.

Both couples - along with "a large number" of Iraqi army officers - have been granted political asylum in Jordan on the personal orders of King Hussein after the daughters and their husbands met with the king three days ago. The Iraqi officials, according to an avuncular statement by Abdul-Karim Kabariti, the Jordanian foreign minister, were "safe in the king's big house". So much, then, for the fraternal ties that once bound the king and his namesake in Baghdad.

What, the world was asking last night, will now become of Saddam? For the present, it seems, precious little. "It proves that Saddam must have discovered some sensitive feelings," a Palestinian journalist observed cynically. "A few years ago, they would all have been killed in a helicopter 'accident' like Saddam's late defence minister, General Khairallah."

Perhaps. But dictators with warm hearts don't last long and the defection of his daughters - a knife in the very heart of the Baathist family - came only two months after a mutiny by several of Saddam's Sunni Muslim army officers. As Jordanian officials were pointing out yesterday with customary anonymity, the events showed just how far the political and economic situation in Iraq has deteriorated since Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In truth, however, Saddam may not be leaving us just yet. Hussein Kamel al-Majid's defection came about not only because he was dismissed by his father- in-law from his post last Wednesday but because he has lost a power struggle against Saddam's half-brothers. Nor is it the first time that Hussein Kamel - who is related to Saddam through his father - has fallen from grace. He had held the post of head of military industrialisation during the 1980s, lost it for several years and then regained it only six weeks ago.