Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Saddam's circles of hatred

The tribal structure put in place by the dictator is now turning against him, reports Helga Graham; 'If you demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Iraqis would be all blind and toothless'

Helga Graham
Saturday 19 August 1995 23:02 BST

IT IS not yet high noon in Baghdad. But, judging from the extraordinary events of the last few days in the Middle East, the clock's hands are creeping close to the perpendicular.

The flight of Saddam's daughters and sons-in-law to Jordan was caused by a feud and murder within the first circle of power in Iraq - Saddam's immediate family. But the second circle which surrounds the dictator, a circle formed by the Sunni tribal members who run the elite military and intelligence units, has also undergone a partial process of collapse, becoming, in effect, a second circle of hate.

In May this year, the death under torture of an officer of the Dulaimi tribe, following an assassination attempt, provoked riots and widespread arrests in the mainly Dulaimi city of Ramadi. Earlier, a land dispute at the village of Zawiya near Tikrit, Saddam's heartland, turned into a two-week siege and full- scale shoot-out between emergency forces and former soldiers who were members of the Juburi tribe.

Given the importance of the Juburi and Dulaimi tribes to the Iraqi power structure these scenes, too, must have seemed alarming to the ruling family. Jordanian sources say that Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam's son-in law, who defected last week and who was the second most powerful man in Iraq, visited Jordan a month ago and confided to King Hussein that the whole of Iraq had become "unworkable". The king advised him discreetly to attempt a coup from within Iraq.

The word "tribes" tends to provoke mental vertigo in the West. Who exactly are these exotic beings? Why are they now alienated? Does it matter?

Few people have a better understanding of this second circle of power in Iraq than a sheikh of the Juburi tribe, Mishan al Juburi, who gave his first-ever interview to the Independent on Sunday in London last week.

Mishan al Juburi, who came from a poor village near Tikrit, was first brought into Saddam's circle as a young man in 1975. Asked what he wanted by the Iraqi leader, he petitioned only for pensions for poor families in his region.

Saddam gave him a car, $11,000 and granted his wish to become a journalist. So Saddam bought my loyalty," he said. "I truly admired him. He talked of freedom and socialism. This meant that thousands of my tribe could eat, our schools were no longer of mudbrick. We had roads.

"Our lives changed, especially after electricity which until then only the cities had. We believed that electricity and everything came directly from Saddam, not understanding the quadrupling of the oil price. We were ready to die for him."

Mishan Juburi's biggest chance came in 1982-1983. At the height of Iraq's 1982 defeats in battles with Iran, Saddam jettisoned the socialist principles of the Baath party and sought salvation in the ancient tribal values. Accompanied by Mishan Juburi, he visited Tikrit and the small towns of Beji and Sharquat to recruit some 50,000 young men from the largest Sunni tribes, the Juburi. The next largest tribe, the Dulaimi, were also approached by Saddam at that time.

"He saw that the Juburi were brave," says Mishan al-Juburi. "Even when living in towns they still had the values of tribal villagers - communal spirit, belief in honour and an admiration for valour. Desertion in battle - a big problem for Saddam at the time - is unthinkable."

The new recruits were intended as Saddam's personal bodyguard which would protect him from the army, and to set up the Republican and Special Guards.

Additionally, young tribal officers with ten years' army experience were promoted to the top of the army and the special units. In intelligence training centres, Juburis and Dulaimis were, after Tikritis, selected for promotion.

As one of the architects of Iraq's new tribal infrastructure, Mishan al Juburi's star continued to rise. He became an intimate friend of Saddam's son, Uday, and makes no bones about enjoying the pleasures of Baghdad in this privileged circle. "As a sheikh, you can do anything in Baghdad," he says with a wolfish grin.

The clash between Saddam's dictatorship and tribal values began to emerge in the late 1980s. Mishan Juburi himself drew down the displeasure of the regime when he went on television and denounced the incompetence of the hospital services, following the death of his young son.

A brief period in jail followed. During this time, the scales fell from his eyes. The gap between Saddam's words and actions, between talk of honour and freedom and the actuality of torture chambers and acid baths became unbridgeable in his mind.

After he was released, he says, "I couldn't sleep normally. I went to hotels to hide. I dreaded that they knew what I was thinking. Once in the night I saw Uday's bodyguards on the security television screen. Uday only wanted my gold Piaget watch, but I was terrified."

Mishan began to withdraw from his personal role in the regime, and went into business, exporting wool - "very profitably" - from his tribal area to Britain. Discreetly, he began to move his own money out of the country. But it was not until 1989 that he actively became involved in a coup attempt.

A former classmate, a Captain Sattam al Juburi, whom he had helped become a captain in the Republican Guard, asked him to assist in placing fellow Juburis in special positions in the same unit. Suspecting nothing, Mishan phoned several members of Saddam's family to request these favours.

But Captain Sattam was, in fact, planning the most serious pre-Gulf War coup with large-scale support in tank and artillery units, due to take place on Army Day in 1990.

Taking Mishan into his confidence, Sattam told him: "Saddam's massacres will dishonour us in history. How do we face our own children? We have to stop the brutality."

He asked Mishan, with his special knowledge of the ruling elite, to assess the reaction to a democratic revolution, especially in the army. Mishan concluded that the army was loyal to Iraq rather than Saddam. The Republican Guard and special intelligence units were more concerned with their own self-preservation and would go along, provided their own safety was promised. Mishan left Iraq to be ready to explain the democratic aims of the coup in the West.

But at the last minute, the plot was discovered and the Army Day celebrations were cancelled. The coup plotters were killed, Sattam himself refusing to speak under torture. Mishan remained overseas, the sole survivor.

This coup was a critical point in initiating the bad blood between Saddam and the highly placed Juburi in the military. There followed a kind of Carry On Conspiring atmosphere, as Juburi masterminded two further attempted coups.

In 1991, Juburi pilots bombed one of Saddam's safe houses, missing him by minutes. A year later, Mishan Juburi's brother, Sheikh Dira, was the centre of a bizarre plot against Saddam, which was described by the former US Secreatry of State, James Baker, as the most significant attempt on Saddam's life since the Gulf War.

Sheikh Dira played a curious role in Saddam's household as the leader's former bodyguard, but he was also a famous faith healer and mystic who was able to cure Saddam's violent migraine headaches by putting a cloth over his master's head and touching his shoulder with the tip of a sword. Dira was thus, uniquely, allowed to bear arms in Saddam's presence. The plan was to use this privilege to decapitate the dictator.

But he and an associate in the intelligence services were betrayed - and executed by having dynamite detonated in their mouths. After their deaths, tens of thousands of people from all tribes defied an official ban and turned out to pay their respects to the two men. This display of mass disobedience gave warning of the scale of disaffection in the Tikriti heartland.

As each plot unfolded, executions and dismissals followed, and the circle of hatred around Saddam expanded. Given the strength of tribal solidarity, this rebellious spirit is far more difficult to eradicate than in a conventional army.

And it is not a conflict that Saddam - or any dictator who might follow him - can win. He has moved hundreds of Juburis out of the leadership and relies now on smaller tribes with lesser ambitions.

But the allied Juburi and Dulaim are simply too numerous for Saddam ever to gain his former security.

The series of coups also point up an unsuspected radical current that has sprung up among the important military and tribal sections of the country. The combination of tribal pride and their suffering in the Iran- Iraq war and subsequent conflicts have led to a turning point: the demand for a share of power - and wealth - for all of them.

As the Middle East and the world awaits the next development, Mishan al Juburi welcomes the defection of Hussein Kamel, who is thought to have escaped with almost pounds 20m in state funds, which means the Iraqi opposition can for the first time operate independently of American funds.

"We of the second rank of the Iraqi establishment have not so far succeeded," says Mishan al Juburi. "Kamel in the first rank has knowledge that may allow him to break through. His family has killed hundreds of mine ... but I think about lives to be saved in the future, not past deaths.

"If you demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, Iraqis would all be blind and toothless."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in