Discontent is visible at Saddam's side: Not only popular unrest, but henchmen and kin may topple the Iraqi dictator, says Michael Sheridan

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THE END of Saddam Hussein's rule over Iraq has been prophesied with such optimistic consistency since his invasion of Iran in 1980 that it would be a rash diplomat who calculated on anything other than his survival. But the new Iraqi confrontation with the major powers of the UN, combined with domestic collapse and internecine strife at the top of the regime, has altered the balance of probability. After 15 years of absolute power for Saddam, it may now be the beginning of the end.

On Monday night Baghdad television broadcast its customary images of the Iraqi leader and his galere of khaki-clad associates. They were meeting in apparent collegial discussion to guide the nation, or what remains of it, through its battle against the 'madness and frenzy of the United States'. These ritual scenes encapsulate a double deception: the myth of a 'Revolutionary Command Council' collectively governing the Iraqi state and the fiction of a 'Regional Command' of the ruling Baath party, working towards the inevitable unity of the Arab nation. Such pictures have become familiar fare to Iraqis; since 1980 they have known little else.

First came the futile blitzkrieg against Iran, which yielded one shattered town and led to eight years of bloodletting. Then, after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, came war, bombardment, a new ceasefire, the forced de facto division of the country and economic siege. Now Iraqis face the possibility of yet another violent upheaval.

The greatest danger to the Iraqi leader's position does not derive from mere public discontent - the regime has long proved impervious to that. But popular misery, economic disaster and fracturing interests within the ruling elite could prove a fatal combination.

For Saddam, the first signs of weakness are already visible at the top. The tightly knit structure of kinsmen and loyalists around him has always provided the real nexus of power. Despite the curious mixture of Arab identity and national socialism that constitutes Baathist ideology, the family always came first. Yet there are indications that at least two senior members of the Saddam clique harbour grave reservations about the Iraqi leader's latest policy.

One sign appeared in a Baghdad newspaper called Babil (Babylon), published by Saddam's recalcitrant eldest son, Uday. The newspaper is often used to play off one faction against another, but this week Uday chose to criticise the conduct of Iraqi diplomacy and its failure to win international support for Iraq's demand that UN sanctions should be lifted. In the context of a country run by one dictatorial figure, that amounted to direct criticism of Saddam.

The theory of dissent at the top is amplified by the conduct of Saddam's influential half- brother, Barzan al-Takriti. He is the Iraqi envoy to the UN at Geneva and sensibly spends most of his time in a well-protected lakeside villa. However, he also holds the post of adviser to the President with cabinet rank. Diplomats in Geneva say that for the past six months he has played an influential role in lobbying the French and Russian governments to consider easing sanctions. They believe he had been urging Saddam to recognise the newly delineated border between Iraq and Kuwait. This concession would have won support from Moscow and Paris. His advice was rejected in Baghdad. Saddam's build-up of troops in the south left Al-Takriti contemplating the fragments of his initiative.

On Monday he gave an interview to the Arabic service of the BBC, in which he appeared to discount further mediation on his part. When asked about his close family ties to the President, he said emphatically that Iraq was a republic, not a monarchy, and that he took his instructions as a professional diplomat from the Iraqi government.

Both the Babil article and the Al-Takriti interview showed a difference of emphasis unthinkable in pre-1991 Iraq. The head of the Iraqi intelligence service and one of the country's two vice-presidents have also vanished into obscurity within the past year. Such dissent within a hitherto iron-clad ruling clique mirrors the disintegration of Saddam's state.

The economic disaster brought about by sanctions is well documented. The Iraqi dinar, once valued at three dollars, is now exchanged at 800 to the dollar. On 29 May, Saddam assumed the office of Prime Minister to try to get a grip on food supplies, raw materials and basic commodities. Even the army is running short of bread and meat.

The degree of privation and repression in Iraq, reported in detail yesterday by the French daily Le Monde, almost defies normal political analysis. Le Monde quoted Iraqi witnesses as saying that despair and frustration prevailed even among families enjoying close Baathist connections. The education system, once a centrepiece of 'progressive' Baathism, has collapsed. The security services have rounded up at least 5,000 young people caught in possession of foreign currency since mid-July and nothing has been heard of them. Saddam has ordered that the ears of armed forces deserters should be cut off. Crime is rampant: journalists on a government-escorted trip to Basra on Monday were held up, stripped and robbed by bandits.

The Basra incident underlined one consistent and little-noticed policy. Saddam is abandoning control of the hinterland to dig in around Baghdad and his home town of Tikrit, perhaps in preparation for the defence of a redoubt. There are multiplying signs to this effect. The north of the country is in the hands of Kurdish separatists and Iraqi aircraft cannot fly north of the 36th parallel. To the south, the Shia areas remain turbulent while Saddam's air force is denied operations south of the 32nd parallel.

Baghdad, however, remains the centre of government. Saddam is taking steps to purify and strengthen it. One recent decree orders anyone not resident in the capital before 1990 to quit the city. A second ordinance prohibits anyone not resident in Baghdad in 1957 to purchase property within its boundaries. These measures have the effect of driving out Shias while entrenching more conformist Sunni Muslims and people from Tikrit. Sparse cash has been spent on restoring electricity, water and services to Baghdad while other areas go neglected. Fortress Baghdad: it would be an ironic final scene for the Baathist regime whose founding slogan was 'Unity, Freedom and Socialism'.