Saddam's family: a monstrous new episode

Click to follow
HUSSEIN KAMEL should have known as well as anyone not to put his trust in Saddam's family values. Why did Lt Gen Hussein Kamel al-Majid, the favoured son-in-law who defected to Jordan last year, return last week to what seems to have been a certain fate? The answer seems to be a mixture of desperation and stupidity.

The official version of Friday's events is that he and his brothers were killed by members of his own clan who had decided that "blood should be shed due to their treason to their homeland". Lt Gen Hussein Kamel and his brother Lt Col Saddam Kamel, also married to a Saddam daughter, were in the house in Baghdad they had stayed in since they arrived from Amman three days before. Sometime on Friday it was stormed by other members of the al-Majid family. They killed the repentant defectors along with their father and a third brother, Hakim.

Whatever hopes the bothers may have entertained when they went home, the attack cannot have come as a complete surprise. Earlier in the day they would have heard that their wives Raghad and Rana, Saddam's daughters, who had fled with them, had divorced them as "failed traitors". The language in which the divorces were reported by the official news agency gave a strong hint that their former father-in-law had decided to punish them.

Exactly what happened next is a mystery. The first news of the divorces and the killings came on a television station controlled by Uday, elder son of Saddam Hussein, known for his extreme personal violence. Iraqi newspapers have since said that nine people died in the gun battle.

It is hardly likely that Hussein Kamel would have been killed without direct orders from Saddam Hussein himself. Baghdad is a well-policed city where armed gangs could not assault a house without official permission. The al-Majid family itself is part of Saddam's wider clan. Two attackers who were killed - both cousins of the defectors - were given what amounted to a state funeral yesterday, while the official Iraqi news agency hailed them as "heroes and martyrs" who fell in the "assault of Jihad". Even the timing and language of the divorce - denouncing the brothers as traitors in a country where any criticism of the regime leads to torture and death - argues that the killings were orchestrated by the Iraqi leader.

Certainly, the murders were in keeping with the savagery which has always been Saddam's hallmark. As a young member of the Iraqi Baath party he was known for his willingness to settle any argument by killing. In 1959 he was shot in the leg when trying to assassinate the Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Qasim. After the Baath party seized power in 1968 he established one of the cruellest regimes on earth. Yet the world, including Iraqis who should have known better, have continued to underestimate his willingness to choose a violent solution to any problem. He has always believed Stalin's adage: "Person - problem; no person - no problem."

Why did Hussein Kamel not consider all this before he returned to Baghdad last Tuesday? Probably he did. But he may also have calculated that, apart from family solidarity, it was in Saddam Hussein's interest to let him and his brother live. Their return would be a propaganda coup for the regime. It was a blow to those who saw the defections as evidence that the inner circle was fragmenting. The Iraqi leader could show his family reunited.

Obviously Hussein Kamel should have known better. He was very much Saddam Hussein's creature. He was related to him twice over, as cousin and son- in-law. In the 1980s he was portrayed as the thrusting general who had created the elite Republican Guards and helped win the Iran-Iraq war. His rapid promotion was much resented by the professional officer corps.

Semi-literate and not a man of great intelligence, he was obviously deeply disappointed by his six months in exile. Evidently, he failed to dwell on the circumstances of his leaving - reminiscent of the casual thuggery and household slaughter in the high circles of Imperial Rome, depicted by Robert Graves in I Claudius.

He and Saddam Kamel, the deputy head of the palace guard, fled with their wives across the desert to Jordan on 8 August after a shooting within the family circle in Baghdad. The murderous Uday, who had once beaten his father's valet to death, had gone to a party drunk. Believing he had been insulted he opened fire with a sub-machine-gun, accidentally killing several gypsy dancers and wounding his uncle Watban, a former interior minister, in the leg. Hussein and Saddam Kamel believe they were next on the list.

Fear may have been the motive for their flight, but once in Jordan they developed broader ambitions. Hussein Kamel called for the overthrow of his father-in-law's regime. Worse, he also agreed to be intensively debriefed by US and other intelligence agencies. As the former head of Iraqi arms procurement and manufacture he had much to tell about Iraq's secret nuclear, chemical weapons and poison gas programmes. But crucially, and foolishly, he failed to obtain, before spilling the beans, the right of residence in the West. He was confined to a palace loaned to him by King Hussein and his contacts were controlled by Jordanian security.

For a brief moment after his defection he aspired to a key role in the Iraqi opposition. But for too many opponents of the regime, this was the man who had led the Iraqi forces which killed thousands when they crushed the rebellion in the Shiah holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf at the end of the Gulf war in 1991. As King Hussein kept his distance, Hussein Kamel reportedly became depressed, sitting by himself, seeing nobody. Expected visits to Syria and Saudi Arabia were cancelled.

What was the role of Raghad and Rana during the months in exile? Their divorce petition, obviously biased but not wholly to be discounted, said they had never wanted to defect. They say they were told they were going on holiday to Jordan and did not know what was happening until Hussein Kamel gave his press conference in Amman.

Frustrated and isolated, Hussein Kamel began to think of going home. Obviously he was looking for assurances about his safety and he appears to have received them, from a shadowy figure - an old associate of Saddam Hussein - known as Iyada al-Sideed, who arrived in Amman in recent weeks. Once governor of Tikrit, the home province of the Saddam family and their clan, he seems to have been trusted by Hussein Kamel. Sideed went back to Baghdad and then returned to Amman last weekend, presumably with the necessary promises of pardon. Within a couple of days Hussein Kamel, his brother and their wives were driving across the 600 miles of nothingness which separates the two capitals.

There cannot have been many Iraqis who believed that Saddam Hussein would really forgive them, and in a few months or years, Hussein Kamel and his brother would no doubt have met with a - fatal - "accident". But few can have expected that they would die so quickly and publicly.