Saddam's clan get full treatment at Uday's bedside

It was a tense meeting. Earlier this year Saddam Hussein, gathered the closest member of his family - the inner core of his regime - around the hospital bedside of Uday, his eldest son, paralysed by a bullet in the spine after an assassination attempt last December.

The Iraqi leader told his relatives who had come to the Ibn Sina hospital that their "craving for people's property" had become the talk of Iraq. He said their behaviour was damaging him and his regime. Pointing to Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of the Iraqi leader famous for his brutality, the President said he had "played an important role in prompting me to make the decision to enter Kuwait." And once installed as governor of Iraq's new, 19th province, in 1990, he said: "You looted half the valuables looted in Kuwait". He reminded Ali Hassan he was once "a driver in Kirkuk".

Others got an equally rough ride. Half-brother Sab'awi was meant to be a director of the security services but "he goes to his office at 11am, half asleep". President Saddam utters vague threats against his other half-brother Barzan, Iraq's ambassador in Geneva since 1988, saying: "I should not have left him all this time." Even Uday, facing a dangerous operation to remove the bullets in his body, is asked: "Are you a politician, a trader, a people's leader or a playboy?"

The transcript of the meeting was first published by the London-based magazine al-Wasat and has become the subject of intense discussion among Iraqi opponents of the regime. Who leaked the document, and why? President Saddam himself is the most likely culprit. His criticisms seem carefully scripted to show many of the nastier episodes in Iraq's recent history were not, as had been imagined, the fault of Saddam Hussein himself, but of his greedy relatives.

For instance, Gen Omar al-Hazaa, a member of the Iraqi leader's clan known for his denunciations of the regime when in his cups at the officers club in Baghdad, was executed in 1990. Saddam Hussein was blamed. But this turns out to have been unfair. Addressing Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Iraqi leader says: "It was you and Hussein Kamel [another son-in-law murdered last year when he unwisely returned to Baghdad from exile in Amman] who caused me to execute Omar al-Hazaa and his sons". It was they who had the house of Gen Hazaa in Baghdad demolished by a bulldozer.

On the face of it, the Iraqi leader is past rehabilitation. So what good will it do him? The President may not know the extent to which he has entered Western demonology. A Palestinian leader who met him before the Gulf War discovered he did not know he had appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He excitedly asked the Palestinian to get copies of the magazines from his hotel.

There may be a more subtle message in the leaked document. President Saddam may want to emphasise that his relatives are as bad as he is, in case anybody should think of replacing him by them. There is a note of self-pity which also seems authentic. In the case of the killing of Omar al-Hazaa, whose tongue was reputedly cut out after his death, he says: "It will always be said that Saddam did that; people will not say that Ali Hassan and Hussein Kamel did it."

President Saddam throws an interesting light on the politics of his inner family. He relates how the governor of Kirkuk, a city in north-east Iraq, telephoned him because he had stopped trucks smuggling grain into Iran. These turned out to belong to Ali Hassan al-Majid. Another target is his third half-brother Watban, former interior minister, shot through the leg by Uday at a drunken party on the banks of the Tigris in 1995. He says: "The Interior Ministry was ruined during your term". President Saddam mentions that he had fined him, presumably for corruption.

Up until 1995 Saddam Hussein's family seemed determined to stick together. Then Uday shot his uncle Watban through the leg and Hussein Kamel fled to Jordan. He was killed on his return last year. Five months ago a relative of Gen al-Hazaa told gunmen where they could find Uday one night in Baghdad. He survived, but is crippled.

President Saddam may want to reassert control over his family. He may have hoped also that by spreading the blame for past atrocities, he may persuade the world to be more accommodating to him in future.

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