Vengeance is family affair for Saddam

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The day before Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who was murdered in Baghdad on Friday, returned home, a visitor to his house in Amman asked if he was sure it was safe to go back. "No, I am not sure," said Iraq's most famous defector. "But after the way I have been treated here, I prefer to return.''

When he made his decision, Hussein Kamel was close to a nervous breakdown: rejected by King Hussein, who made it clear he wanted him to leave Jordan, as well as by leaders of other Arab countries, the Iraqi opposition and the US, he had nowhere left to turn.

It was then that President Saddam Hussein sent a formal offer of total immunity from punishment if his son-in-law came back. It was delivered by Iyada al-Sideed, a man Hussein Kamel trusted and a former governor of Tikrit province, from which come the group of extended families that rule Iraq.

An incident with a Jordanian journalist just before Hussein Kamel left indicates his state of mind and may have encouraged him to depart. Two weeks ago he called Naif Thora, editor of the weekly al-Bilad, and gave an interview in which he raged against President Saddam.Three hours later he rang Mr Thora and said: "I don't want you to publish the interview.''

When he refused, Hussein Kamel shouted: "If you dare publish the interview, I'll send my bodyguards over." Mr Thora replied: "I am reminding you that you are in Jordan, not in Iraq. Here we do not assassinate journalists." After the interview had been published, he filed a complaint against Hussein Kamel with the police.

By then, the isolation into which he and his brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Saddam Kamel, formerly deputy head of President Saddam's palace guard, had fallen was total.

It was also a little surprising, because six months earlier, when Hussein Kamel fled to Jordan, he seemed to have a number of cards in his hand: he was the first defector from the inner family circle of President Saddam and, as head of military procurement, knew the secrets of Iraq's nuclear, chemical warfare and poison-gas weapons.

But he told all he knew to US and other intelligence services, without getting asylum outside Jordan.

Debriefers also realised that he was a man of limited intelligence, without support in his clan or in Iraq's security services. He was unable to find allies in the Iraqi opposition, who feared the US might adopt him as a candidate to replace President Saddam.

Despite his knowledge of the regime, Hussein Kamel thought he stood a chance of surviving. He had presumably received assurances from visiting relatives, like his mother-in-law, Sajida, that all would be forgiven. His return would be a propaganda victory but he forgot that vengeance is at the centre of President Saddam's character.

His murder by members of his al-Majid clan on Friday is in keeping with President Saddam's liking for forcing relatives of a victim to participate in his death. In 1984, Omar Haz'a, a relative of Saddam's, who had played a critical role in the coup in 1968 which brought the Iraqi leader to power, was murdered. He was a heavy drinker who criticised Saddam. Members of his extended family in Tikrit were forced to perform celebratory dances on his grave.

By giving a state funeral to those killed attacking Hussein Kamel's villa - attended by Uday, President Saddam's murderous elder son and other dignitaries of the regime - the President will have frightened members of Iraq's elite who might have considered plotting against him. Not that there were any signs of such a conspiracy. The real motive was vengeance rather than politics.

The killings will widen the breach with Jordan, which began when Kamel Hussein was first welcomed by King Hussein. The murder of two men as traitors, who had been guests of the King until a few days before, is bound to propel him towards a tougher stance against Iraq. This may include closing the road from Baghdad to Amman, which is Iraq's lifeline.