The undoing of a savage family

PROFILE THE SADDAM FAMILY : The betrayal of his sons-in-law threatens Saddam's powerbase, says Patrick Cockburn
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Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion. This is peculiarly true of the family of Saddam Hussein. During the 25 years he has ruled Iraq, violence has touched most Iraqis but has seldom affected his closest relatives. Only this year, for the first time, did they begin to feel threatened. Not surprisingly, the unhappiness within the family took the form of violence, with one of Saddam's half-brothers shot in the leg, and two of his sons- in-law fleeing for their lives across the Jordanian border.

In the past, Saddam has survived by giving the most powerful positions in intelligence and the army to family members. Hussein Kamel, the son- in-law now in Amman, ran the Iraqi arms industry and was credited with setting up the elite Republican Guard during the Iran-Iraq war. Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin dismissed as defence minister earlier this year, was responsible for crushing the Kurds in the late 1980s by using gas on a massive scale.

Despite the savage purges against all who might oppose him, the inner group of relatives around Saddam has remained surprisingly stable. After defeat in the Gulf War, they quashed both popular resistance and plots by the military. Housed in palaces and treating the country as their private estate, they had a lot to lose. Until the defection of Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel, head of Saddam's presidential guard, earlier this month nobody expected the family to split so dramatically, simply because few of his relatives could hope to survive Saddam's demise.

This calculation is no longer true and may prove fatal to the present leadership's grip on power. The people on whom Saddam can wholly rely - notably his sons Uday and Qusay - do not have the strength to replace the relatives who have been ousted. Above all, the very knowledge that the solidarity of the ruling family is broken will damage Saddam's image of indestructibility, one of his strongest defences.

He was born in 1937 in the northern Iraqi town of Tikrit on the Tigris. After his father died, his mother remarried and he was brought up with his half-brothers. In the interests of family solidarity, he then married his own first cousin Sajeda - several of the inner corps of relatives are related more than once because they married their cousins. The purpose of these marriages was dynastic and none of the women in the family have played a political role, though Sajeda wassent to Amman this week to plead with her daughters to return to Iraq with their husbands.

Ever since he first seized power in 1969, Saddam Hussein has protected himself by shifting alliances, but the basic building blocks of the regime have always been very visible. Half-brothers, cousins and finally his own sons were given important positions. Like Saddam, all are Sunni Muslims who have held power since Iraq gained independence. The Shiah in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the mountains of the north - together a substantial majority of the Iraqi population - were excluded from the most important jobs. Senior ministers long in government had little influence.

Just before the start of the Gulf war in 1991, a Russian diplomat in close contact with sophisticated Iraqis like the Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said that none of Saddam Hussein's closest advisers dared show themselves as more flexible than their president. He said: "They always try to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss. That's the only safe opinion for them to hold."

In his early years, Saddam himself was more cautious. He crushed the Kurds in 1975 by making territorial concessions to the Shah, who promptly betrayed his former Kurdish allies. He has usually been better at bouncing back from a setback or a defeat than in exploiting superior strength. In 1980 he tried to exploit temporary Iranian weakness after the revolution by invading the Iranian province of Khuzestan, involving Iraq in an eight- year-long war. In 1990 he made the same mistake by invading Kuwait and refusing to withdraw. In both cases he wholly overplayed his hand.

The machinery of terror, administered through multiple intelligence services, was sophisticated but the way decisions were taken was not. One Iraqi leader from Tikrit said that the way the ruling family did things was no different once they had taken control of the country to when they just controlled one small river town. Saddam himself, apart from a brief exile in Egypt in the 1960s after trying to assassinate an earlier Iraqi president, had almost no experience of foreign countries. This may explain his frequent miscalculations about foreign response to his actions.

To survive defeat in the Gulf war, Saddam promoted his family even further. Ali Hassan al-Majid (known as Ali "Chemical" to the Kurds) was made defence minister. Hussein Kamel had, until his flight, not only control of military procurement but of the oil industry. Saddam also promoted his son Uday, a playboy who was previously best known for having murdered his father's chief body guard (a crime for which his father first demoted him, only relenting after pleas for his reinstatement from the guard's family and the Iraqi legislature).

It is Uday, supported by his brother Qusay, who has been at the centre of the family feuds which exploded earlier this month. He quarrelled with Saddam's half-brothers and one, Watban, was dismissed as interior minister. Divisions grew between the al-Majeed and al-Hassan branches of the family - each branch related to the husbands of Saddam's mother. Anger was fuelled by the knowledge that Iraq had failed to end the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 1990. It looked decreasingly likely that Iraq would be allowed to export oil with Saddam in power.

Even by Iraqi standards, Uday is considered violent. He is also ambitious. He used his newspaper Babel to attack his political enemies. He was put in charge of a new 20,000-strong paramilitary organisation known as the Fedayeen, apparently designed to act as the Tonton Macoute of the regime. The Republican Guard was increasingly distrusted. Saddam had traditionally relied on money and terror to rule Iraq and, without oil exports, there was no money left. Terror increased. Amputations were introduced for desertion from the army and members of Sunni Muslim tribes, long allied to the regime, were no longer safe.

Saddam has succeeded in the past because of the unity of his extended family and the fragmentation of his opponents. With family solidarity broken, it is difficult to see how he can survive long. Other members of the regime will see that even the president's sons-in-law did not believe they were safe from Uday and his gunmen. The fall of Saddam, so often predicted in the wake of the Gulf war, may finally be at hand.