We should be welcoming Saddam's children here

It would be a noble gesture for Britain to offer refuge to those in Saddam's family with no crimes to answer for
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The Foreign Office denies it, and so does the Home Secretary. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? In a welcome moment of Iraqi light farce, Britons are invited to imagine that Saddam Hussein's former wife, two of his daughters and 10 of his grandchildren are shortly to be taking up residence in Leeds.

The source of this humdinger of a tale is Izzi-Din Mohammed Hassan al-Majid, who has told Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arab newspaper, that he intends to negotiate for his cousins by marriage, their mother and their children to apply for asylum in Britain.

Mr Majid lives in Leeds himself, and he has done so since he fled Saddam's regime in 1995, purportedly after a dispute over money. He was granted indefinite leave to remain in 2000. He is reported to have told Asharq al-Awsat, in a telephone interview from Baghdad, that Raghad, 35, and Rana, 33, were attracted to Britain for various reasons - chief among them, safety from revenge assassins.

The other big attraction here for his relations, says Mr Majid, lies in the country's schools. Not one of Saddam's grandchildren has apparently received any education for a year now, and they are all keen to continue their studies. The ladies would expect to be housed near each other in Leeds, in council accommodation of course, and would be seeking financial assistance in the form of state benefits. Additionally, as part of their deal, they would like an army escort to Jordan, before flying on to Leeds Bradford airport and their lovely fresh start.

What fools the Anglo-American coalition were, with the wisdom of hindsight, to get so tough on Syria for sheltering members of Saddam's regime. Before the war began, the lasses, their mum - mother also of Saddam's "cubs" Uday and Qusay - and their five-a-side teams of offspring had hightailed it over the border, along with 60 bodyguards and several truckloads of belongings and valuables.

Kicked out by Assad, they're now back in Iraq - living in two rooms, cooking their own meals, washing their own clothes, under virtual house arrest and suffering from severe "psychological disorder" (which surely runs in the family). Certainly they don't appear to be suffering from a surfeit of intelligence. Nor does their knight in shining armour, who is a blood relative of their former husbands.

These two, Hussein and Saddam Kamel, defected with their wives to Jordan in 1995, but got fed up with the banality of life apart from the world's most dysfunctional father-in-law and returned for a reconciliation, only to find themselves executed in an ambush instead. The daughters were merely subjected to the humiliation of divorce before their husbands were killed.

Any Iraqi with a modicum of nous, and a real desire to come and live in Britain, might feel it incumbent upon them to say a few words of condemnation for the old Saddam regime. These two, though, according to Mr Majid, are "very enraged for what had happened to Iraq, and I saw the tears in their eyes, especially when we talked about the war and the fall of the regime". Other reports quote the elder daughter, Raghad, as saying: "The regime fell because of the aides employed by my father, whose only interest was to stay in power and seek personal gain."

Actually, that's not right, is it? The regime fell because it was attacked and deposed by an Anglo-American force of military might unsurpassed on the planet. Why choose to come and live with the land of one of the invading forces, when other nations, such as, say, France, seemed far more sympathetic to the idea of Saddam's continued reign of terror? One answer is simply that Britain is a longstanding destination for Iraqi exiles, and when a country achieves such a status, the exiles keep coming because they want to live where they have family members. Another reason is that they don't particularly want to, and that the idiot cousin is simply playing into the hands of the British press by giving it such fabulous ammunition for its anti-asylum campaign.

Because the truth is that these women and their children are in no position at all to seek asylum. It is well known that asylum-seekers must tip up on these shores in person and apply for asylum as soon as they get here. Applications for asylum cannot be made by proxy, and if a word of what Mr Majid says, and is alleged to have said, is true, these women have no chance at all of being able to swing it.

They have no documents or passports and are afraid to leave the home they are presently billeted in. Whether anyone in Baghdad is willing to facilitate the women's travel, without the say-so of the occupying force, is a moot point .

Instead, all there is to this story is rather cynical anti-asylum propaganda, of the familiar kind designed to suggest that absolutely anyone can get into Britain and lay their hands on oodles of taxpayers' money - even the lifelong beneficiaries of an evil regime.

Technically, it could be argued, these women might be able to make a successful application - if they can get here - as long as they cannot be proved to have taken part in war crimes or to have been involved in the abuse of human rights. Practically, though, the Government will surely be prepared to do anything in its power to avoid such an eventuality, simply because of the public relations nightmare that it would unleash.

Which is a pity, really, because it would actually be a noble gesture for Britain to offer political exile to those remnants of Saddam's family who have no crimes to answer for. In particular, the children involved in this mess should not be made to suffer because of the evils that their fathers are responsible for, and the chances are that if these families are left to sink or swim in Iraq, they will sink.

The saga surrounding Saddam's daughters and grandchildren - manufactured though it is - still throws up some profound moral questions. Clearly, there does need to be some provision made for the members of Saddam's family who are not wanted by the occupying force for crimes against humanity, if they are not to be left to the whim of rough justice. That no such provision has been made is just one more tiny detail in an occupation marked by breathtaking confusion.

There are conflicting reports about which countries the sisters and their families would be prepared to live in, and about which countries would be prepared to accept them. The idiot cousin claims that no Arab country has invited the women to stay, and that in any neighbouring country they would not feel safe anyway. Conflicting reports suggest, however, that the daughters would be happy to accept hospitality in Egypt, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates.

The civilised course, for British and US diplomats, would be to approach the women or their representatives, establish the truth of the matter and make some sort of deal that would be acceptable to all parties. What these unfortunate children need now is a fresh and stable start. The best possible start would be in one of the countries responsible for changing their futures so dramatically - not least for the reason that Britain or the United States would be the best places to isolate them from their scary historical legacy, and the possibility that they may become some sort of focus for future mayhem. But since that's not likely, the Allies ought to come up with some sort of workable compromise.