The London-based Iraqi National Accord opposition group said earlier that it has unconfirmed reports that Barzan, once a senior lieutenant of the Iraqi leader, had asked for asylum in an Arab Gulf state. Extra details were given by the al-Hayat newsaper in London, which quoted informed sources as saying that Barzan had arrived in the United Arab Emirates on a private aircraft.
"Barzan al-Tikriti left Baghdad on a private plane to the United Arab Emirates to end internal difficulties which made living alongside the sons of his brother the president, Uday and Qusay, impossible," said al- Hayat. It is true that Barzan has had notoriously bad relations with Uday, the Iraqi leader's eldest son. He was also displeased to lose his job as Iraqi ambassador to the UN in Geneva last year after almost a decade in the post and initially resisted returning to Baghdad.
But the Iraqi denial in Baghdad yesterday that Barzan had defected was peculiarly circumstantial. "News reports about Mr Barzan al-Tikriti are false and baseless," said Uday al-Ta'e, head of the official Iraqi News Agency. "Barzan al-Tikriti is on leave to visit his sons who live in Geneva and you can speak with him by telephone."
There is some confirmation of this from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), another opposition group, which says that until recently Barzan had been at his residence on Lake Geneva. His bodyguards and Mercedes were seen in the driveway of the house. The organisation had been tracking his movements because Bar-zan no longer has diplomatic immunity and it would like to bring charges against him as a war criminal.
"I wish it was true that he has defected," said an INC spokesman. "But I think this story is just an attempt to show dissension in Iraq." Iraqi opposition groups, notably the Iraqi National Accord, which is based in London, have long circulated stories about divisions within Saddam's family. Most, though by no means all, have turned out to be untrue.
There was no comment last night from the United Arab Emirates, but the claim that Barzan had fled Iraq recalls the flight of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, both sons-in-law of Saddam, to Jordan in 1995. The following year they unwisely returned to Baghdad where they were killed on their father-in-law's orders.
Barzan played an important role in his half-brother's rise to power in Iraq in the 1970s. He was later eclipsed after a family dispute and went to Geneva. Nevertheless, he is a powerful enough member of the Iraqi leader's inner family to make him difficult to touch. Kamran Karadaghi, an Iraqi commentator, said yesterday: "It is true that Barzan has bad relations with Uday and Qusay, but he can't be harmed without direct orders from Saddam himself." Though Barzan remains influential in Iraq, real power is concentrated in the hands of Saddam himself. When Hussein Kamel defected in 1995 his calls for a coup against his father-in-law in Baghdad produced no results despite the fact that he had long been at the pinnacle of power in Iraq and once headed an inner security service. Neverthless Uday, who was himself badly wounded in an assassination attempt in Baghdad in 1996, has a reputation for extreme personal violence, particularly when drunk. In 1988 he murdered Kamel Hannah Jajo, one of his father's closest aides, during a party on an island in the Tigris. At another party in Baghdad in 1995 he shot his uncle, Watban, brother of Barzan, through the leg and killed several dancers. Barzan had made little attempt to conceal his contempt for Uday and his pretensions to succeed his father. He once said: "The notion of inheriting power is not acceptable in Iraq" adding that Uday did not have "the legitimacy to govern".