Saddam may survive only 'a few more months'

Baghdad power struggle: Enemies jockey for position as defections leave the Iraqi leader facing defeat

"Uday has done more to overthrow Saddam than all the efforts of the opposition and the Americans in the four years since the Gulf War," said a leading Iraqi dissident about the son of President Saddam Hussein whose erratic violence has torn apart Iraq's ruling family. Suddenly the many enemies of the Iraqi leader, inside and outside the country, believe he is on the verge of losing power.

"Saddam may survive another few months, but not longer," said Yusuf al- Khoi, a long-standing opponent of the regime.

His fall will transform the politics of the Middle East. Iraq is the only Arab oil state big enough to field a powerful army and, once the UN embargo on its oil exports is lifted, have the money to pay for it. Since President Saddam's two sons-in-law fled to Jordan on 8 August, governments throughout the world have been trying to work out what will replace his rule and how the change will affect them.

The most immediate beneficiary will be the US. "The flight of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel shows that the American policy of tight sanctions has worked," says Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader. If President Saddam is overthrown before the US presidential election next year, then President Bill Clinton will be able to point to a foreign policy success to counterbalance failure and frustration in Bosnia.

From the American point of view the ideal outcome would be the overthrow of the Iraqi leader by the Iraqi elite but without a popular uprising. Most probably the new leader would be a professional soldier from the conservative Sunni Muslim heartlands of central Iraq. This would ensure a pro-American Iraq and marginalise the influence of Iran and the Shia Muslims of southern Iraq.

The political convulsion which must follow a change of regime in Iraq will affect all the states in the region. It will allow King Hussein of Jordan, cold-shouldered by the US, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait because of his ambivalent position in the Gulf War, to end his isolation by helping them to get rid of President Saddam.

Senior American diplomats were in Amman last week trying to persuade the king to cut Iraq's lifeline through Jordan by stopping trade and imports of Iraqi oil. The US wants Saudi Arabia to compensate Jordan.

This political realignment is frightening for Iran and its ally, Syria. The Syrians fear that a new axis is emerging in the Middle East, with the US, Jordan and Israel replacing President Saddam with a regime friendly to themselves. This would isolate Syria, putting pressure on Damascus to reach an agreement with Israel over the Golan Heights and to break with Iran. The Iranian government detests President Saddam, but a specialist says: "They think that if the US gets rid of Saddam, they will be the next target."

Could the assumption that President Saddam is going to fall be premature? In the 25 years that he has dominated Iraqi politics he has survived a disastrous decision to invade Iran in 1980, and a similar miscalculation in attacking Kuwait in 1990. Yesterday, Hussein Kamel claimed in Amman that his father-in-law had planned to invade Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia this month, but had called off the attacks after the defections.

Iraqi society is deeply fragmented between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and the Kurds. President Saddam has always been adept at shifting alliances and relying on terror and money to prevent a military coup or a popular uprising.

But the situation today is different. The oil embargo means he has no money to buy support. Uday has largely gained control of the lucrative smuggling trade through Jordan. Rather than keeping people passive, terror is beginning to spur them into outright opposition.

President Saddam has few options left. He seems ambivalent about whether to opt for terror or conciliation, having recently used both. In May a general from the important Dlaimi tribe, long a supporter of the government, was tortured to death, but the Iraqi leader has also offered an amnesty to deserters and draft evaders and ordered the military to stop cutting off the ears of offenders.

It is all probably too late. The political base of the regime is now too small. Uday has 20,000 men in the so-called Fedayeen Saddam militia, set up this year as a quick reaction force to prevent coups. His brother, Qusai, controls the Jihaz al-Amn al-Khas, the security service which oversees all the other security services. But Uday's propensity for casual murder makes him a serious liability.

Other allies are difficult to find, but the most obvious are in the army. Professional officers have always disliked the promotion of family members like Hussein Kamel and Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin who was Defence Minister until July, and President Saddam is now promoting veteran officers to take their place. The Defence Minister is General Hashem Sultan, who negotiated the Gulf War ceasefire in 1991. The newchief of staff, General Abdel Wahad Shnan al-Rabat, is a Shia Muslim who commanded a corps during the Iran-Iraq war.

President Saddam presumably trusts these men, but he does not have the same close relations with them as he once did with his half-brothers, sons-in-law and cousins.

Iraqis at every level also have noticed that when Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel defected, the Iraqi leader's daughters chose their husbands over their father. This has reinforced the sense that President Saddam's palace has come to resemble Hitler's bunker, in which all loyalties dissolve as the people closest to him realise defeat is inevitable and look to their own personal survival.