Amatzia Baram is chairman of the Department of the Modern History of the Middle East, University of Haifa and contributing editor of Middle East Quarterly.
In the early morning on Tuesday, August 9, 1995, a motorcade consisting of luxury cars and escort vehicles crossed the border between Iraq and Jordan and proceeded to Amman. The crossing was completed in less than fifteen minutes -- not surprising in view of the fact that the convoy was led by Husayn Kamil Hasan al-Majid, a paternal first cousin and son-in-law of the president of Iraq, a four-star general of the army, the minister of industry and minerals, the director of military industrialization, and the man regarded, until that morning, as the regime's number two figure.
Approximately thirty people accompanied Husayn Kamil, including his brother, Saddam Kamil, and their two wives, Raghd and Rana, the president's first and second daughters, as well as their children. Other relatives in the convoy included their cousins `Izz ad-Din Muhammad Hasan and Jasim Muhammad Hasan. Bulgarian radio reported that the group had been expected in Bulgaria on August 10 to discuss Iraq's huge debt and the resumption of commercial ties; instead, half the group chose to seek asylum in Jordan while the other half, including Jasim Muhammad Hasan, chose to return to Iraq.
Upon learning of the escape, Saddam Husayn immediately dispatched to Amman his son `Udayy and cousin `Ali Hasan al-Majid. They pleaded with King Husayn for extradition of the refugees. But the meeting with the king went badly, lasting only ten minutes, as the king later told an Israeli reporter.1 Foreign Minister `Abd al-Karim al-Kabariti disclosed that the king's reply was "a big no."2
REASONS FOR DEFECTION
Five reasons may explain the defection of Husayn Kamil and the others: family feuds; a change in appointments away from the family; differences with the president and others over foreign relations; generational frustration at not being taken seriously; and the general decline of Iraq.
Family feuds. The most important reason for the defection seems to involve growing tension in the president's family. King Husayn alluded to this: "As far as we know, this was a family crisis, in the personal context, for a fairly long period."3 Kabariti mentioned a serious case of a "family quarrel."4
Family rivalries go back to 1982, when the president's mother, Subha Tulfah al-Masallat, died. As long as she was alive, Saddam Husayn considered her views on all family matters. With her gone, he started making arbitrary decisions that created tensions, starting in late 1983, when he married his elder daughter to Husayn Kamil rather than to the son of his half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim.5
According to a usually reliable source, the defection occurred in the wake of a heated family debate during dinner on August 7 at the president's palace near Tikrit. One of the president's half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim, criticized both Husayn Kamil and `Udayy, resulting in a violent argument between Watban and `Udayy, and the meeting dinner was adjourned. Arriving at his home in Tikrit, Watban was reported to have been fired at and wounded. While it is not certain that Watban's injury led to the defection, it is certain that during the first week of August 1995, the family feud reached its zenith. Kamil's relations with `Udayy had become particularly acrimonious following his return in 1994 from hospitalization in Amman. The two conceited cousins fought over money, power, and prestige.
Most aggravating to Kamil was `Udayy's invasion of his domain--weapons production and repair. Just before the defection, `Udayy attended a "splendid air show" celebrating the reconstruction under his supervision of damaged aircraft. As soon as `Udayy arrived, the band played the national anthem and the show began6 -- ceremonial homage to `Udayy of an unprecedented nature. In view of Saddam Husayn's unpredictability and `Udayy's recklessness, Kamil had good reason to be concerned.
A Saudi intelligence source contends the defection was the result of a violent argument between Husayn Kamil and the president a few days before the defection, and Kamil's fear that his assets abroad would be confiscated.7 At the same time, this family component should not be over-estimated in Kamil's calculations. Kamil was more powerful than his younger cousin, outfitted with many bodyguards and access to Saddam Husayn. He won more authority for himself just weeks before his defection; it seems that `Udayy's immediate attempts to undermine his position, while extremely bothersome, failed. The defector's intense hate for `Udayy and hurt pride at the sight of someone so inferior to him ranking so high must also have rankled him.
Appointments policy. In May 1995, the president dismissed Watban from the ministry of interior, and in July dismissed `Ali Hasan from the ministry of defense, giving him a less important task. The new ministers were people from outside the family and tribe. Because Saddam Husayn does not usually consult with his family about their dismissals, it is very likely that this changing of the guard took them by complete surprise. Husayn Kamil might well have been wary of a similar decision affecting him.
Foreign relations. In his first press conference in exile, Kamil laid the main emphasis on his reservations regarding Saddam Husayn's policies, explaining his view that Iraq suffered unnecessarily because his father-in-law refused to cooperate fully with the United Nations' teams to supervise and dismantle Iraqi weapons. Kamil had good reason to present things this way, thereby portraying himself to the West as a champion of cooperation with the United Nations, and to Iraqis and Arabs as a patriot trying to alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people. Still, these claims should not be dismissed, for Kamil does have a long record as a pragmatist, someone interested in results rather than in party doctrine. In an important 1989 debate, Kamil demanded more economic liberalization than the party old-timers could stomach. Beginning in June 1994, Saddam Husayn's policies were indeed strange, reflecting a loss of direction. Domestically, he introduced draconian punishments for crimes and forced Islamic rules on the country, making it compulsory for party members to study the Qur`an. Internationally, he moved his troops to Kuwait in late 1994 and early 1995.
Generational resentments. Husayn Kamil has given evidence of a deep resentment toward the Ba`th Party old guard. He tells of having castigated a number of them in September 1991, during the party's 10th Regional Congress, for leading Iraq to disaster. And he complained bitterly that his warnings went unheeded. Kamil himself has no party record to speak of. Born in the first half of the 1950s, he was in junior high school when the party came to power in 1968. When Saddam Husayn became president in 1979, he was but a second lieutenant in the palace guard.8 Kamil, much like his whole generation, joined the party when it was already in power, so the old-timers see his and his generation's party membership as a matter of convenience, not conviction. Saddam Husayn has left the traditional Ba`th Party emphasis on hierarchy in place, so that the top ranks of party officialdom consist exclusively of individuals who joined the party well before 1968. This generational barrier appears to be very effective, and a cause of great resentment for the younger generation.
In this respect it is simplistic to see Iraq as the exclusive domain of the president's family. Some young family members have life-and-death powers as well as huge wealth, and are feared and envied by all; but they lack the patina of respectability that comes with underground struggle and long-time party membership. While this clearly is not a sufficient reason for defection, it could have added to Kamil's frustration.
Iraq sinking. Kamil's assessment of Iraq's predicament seems to have contributed to his defection. Conditions in Iraq have deteriorated terribly since the end of the Iraq-Iran War, and especially since early 1994, when the president assumed the premiership in an attempt to curb inflation and crime. But inflation is still soaring, prompting hundreds of thousands of members of the educated classes to leave the country since the war. In Amman alone, there are no less than thirty thousand Iraqi economic refugees, some of whom are even trying to cross the border to Israel. While an exalted official like Kamil did not worry about daily expenses, much evidence points to the Iraqi rulers' being worried about their extended families and about a popular backlash.
Nor can the ruling elite sleep easily at night; since 1989, at least four, possibly many more, coups d'état were nipped in the bud. The first tribal Sunni Arab revolt against the regime erupted in May-June 1995 in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, following the torture and execution of an air force general belonging to the tribe of Albu Nimr, of the Dulaym federation. This revolt left a deep sense of foreboding.
THE DEFECTION'S IMPLICATIONS
The defection could affect the regime in two main areas. Husayn Kamil could reveal to the United Nations many of Iraq's military secrets, thereby forcing Baghdad to reveal new information; or he could become the leader to unite the Iraqi opposition and win wide Arab support.
The first possibility has already materialized. To minimize the damage that Husayn Kamil could cause by divulging Iraq's military secrets, Tariq `Aziz announced that Husayn was the one that denied the U.N. inspection teams crucial information; now, with him out of the way, Iraq could supply all the information the U.N. sought. He urged Rolf Ekeus, chairman of the U.N. Special Committee in charge of supervising and dismantling Iraq's nonconventional weapons, to come to Baghdad as soon as possible to receive the new information.9 The Iraqis hardly could expect anyone to accept their version at face value, but by laying the blame on Kamil, `Aziz signalled to the Iraqi army officer corps -- who bitterly resent providing the U.N. with information on their weapons -- that the leadership divulged the information only due to Kamil's defection.
In all probability, going through these documents, which Iraqi authorities had no time to vet, will cause a delay of at least six months before the Security Council can seriously discuss a lifting of the embargo. British and U.N. leaders see the new information as damaging to Baghdad's credibility, complicating French and Russian efforts to lift the embargo on Iraq;10 if so, this further enhances the already widespread feeling in Baghdad that as long as Saddam Husayn is in power, there will be no lifting of the embargo.
On the second matter, whatever chance the Kamil brothers may have had to topple the Iraqi regime probably ended when they crossed the border. As new and still suspect members of the opposition community in exile, they lack a power base. By defecting, the Kamil brothers admitted their weakness: they were central contributors to the development of a security system that they were unable to dismantle.
Most of the Iraqi opposition has expressed ambivalence or hostility towards Husayn Kamil. The Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-backed Shi`i fundamentalist group, and the liberal United Iraqi National Congress both rejected cooperation with Kamil. Significantly, those willing to work with Kamil tended to be ex-senior officials and officers from Saddam Husayn's Iraq, such as Wafiq as-Samarra'i, a major-general, and Mish`an ad-Damin al-Jubburi, a tribal leader who worked with Saddam Husayn for a few years. Kamil himself remained aloof, uncooperative, and conceited, thus further eroding his support within the opposition.
Nor did he fare much better with the Arab states. Kamil initially receiving very strong support from King Husayn, but then this cooled off. The king allowed him to call for a change of regime in Baghdad and himself implied support for this effort, criticizing what he called the "Iraqi leadership" (though not Saddam Husayn by name) for starting the Iraq-Iran War, invading Kuwait, launching missiles against Israel over Jordanian territory, and engaging in severe violations of human rights.11 The king also recalled that Iraq was ruled by his family until 1958; then, even as he denied any personal ambitions in Iraq, he reminded his audience that he had been heir to Iraq's throne before the July 1958 coup d'etat that destroyed the monarchy.12
Very strong reactions within Jordan against the king's position led eventually to a shift. The prime minister and the foreign minister sounded almost apologetic when they argued that Jordan had to provide the defectors with a political asylum, as it was bound by the tradition of Arab hospitality.13 Foreign Minister Kabariti was no less apologetic when explaining that Kamil was provided with a stage to explain his defection only to enable him "to respond to the charges leveled against him."14 Other senior Jordanian officials implied that Kamil would no longer be allowed to attack the Iraqi regime and that relations with Iraq would continue to be good, the borders would remain open, and the oil will continue to flow. Indeed, new economic agreements were even signed.
In the midst of the defection crisis, the Iraqi president sent a cable congratulating King Husayn on the occasion of the anniversary of his coronation day.15 A few days later, the king replied in a cable in which he defined Saddam Husayn as "dear brother."16 This exchange showed that, whatever their inner feelings, the two leaders could not afford to antagonize each other and thus continued to cooperate, however grudgingly.
Other Arab states responded coolly to Husayn Kamil. The Syrian press at first predicted the early downfall of the regime in Iraq,17 but a few days later, apparently realizing that Jordan would gain most in such a case, started to downplay the significance of the defection. As for Egypt, while Husni al-Mubarak's first reaction to the defections was an offer to provide Saddam Husayn with political asylum in Cairo, the Egyptian president soon changed track. This reluctance may be due in part to the American and British governments' rushing in (especially with the high-profile visit by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau), creating the impression that Washington was engineering a coup d'état in Baghdad via Amman, part of an effort to impose American hegemony on the region. The Saudis, too, recoiled at the thought that the Jordanians should be king-maker in Iraq, and did not normalize relations with Amman. The Kuwaitis, unable to forgive Jordanian behavior in 1990-91, did not even consider normalization.
Media responses. Baghdad's incredulity and embarrassment following the defections was demonstrated by its delayed action: Husayn Kamil and company left Baghdad on August 8 but he was dismissed from his positions only on August 9. The Iraqi News Agency announced this dismissal only eight minutes before the official Jordanian announcement on August 10 that the king had granted the defectors asylum.18 Only on the 11th did the Iraqi regime manage to start its media counteroffensive, a measured and artfully designed campaign to cut Saddam Husayn's losses. One day after Jordan's announcement of the defection, he sent a congratulatory telegram to King Husayn, and Iraqi television later broadcast the king's speech critical of "the Iraqi leadership," almost without comment. Knowing that Jordanian radio broadcasts are regularly monitored in Iraq, the regime decided to give the king's speech full exposure, thus demonstrating its self-confidence.
Baghdad's incredulity and embarrassment following the defections was demonstrated by its delayed action.
Filling the gaps
At the same time, the ever-obsequious Iraqi media ratcheted up its praise of the president by a quantum leap, to previously uncharted levels. When the minister of industry pledged to work harder, he addressed his remarks to Saddam as
Saddam Husayn found it difficult to explain how he could be betrayed by a relative whom he himself selected for a leadership position. In his own attack on Husayn Kamil, the president sought historical cases where blood relations betrayed a great man. He compared himself and Kamil to the Prophet Muhammad and his uncle Abu Lahab, to Abel and Cain, and to Jesus and Judas. (Jesus and Judas not being blood relatives, Saddam Husayn revealed that Judas resembled Jesus very closely in appearance, playing on his and Husayn Kamil's close physical resemblance). He also equated himself with Noah, who "married a woman who did not obey him" afterwards. It is clear that the issue of his faulty judgement was difficult to resolve, especially for a ruler who had cultivated an image of omniscience. He promised that all his other relatives in high positions would retain their posts, just as the Prophet continued to rely on those from his family who supported him.19
Significantly, the president did not mention his daughters. This is the most humiliating aspect of the whole affair: in Iraqi society a rebellious daughter is a cause for great shame. It is not surprising that he had sent his wife, Sajida, to try and convince them to return home even after he gave up on the Kamil brothers. In a damage-control move, the Iraqi people were told that the daughters had in fact been abducted. Many may half-believe it, but the damage to Saddam Husayn's prestige is significant all the same.
Husayn Kamil's uncle, `Ali Hasan al-Majid, declared on Iraqi television that the family renounces "the thief of the people and the betrayer of the mission, the principles of the party and the leader's confidence. His family has unanimously decided to permit with impunity the spilling of [his] blood."20 This is a tribal statement: Husayn Kamil's blood will not be avenged, so anyone is free to kill him. This statement is a necessary rite of dissociation by the remaining segments of the Majid branch of the family. At the same time, such a declaration is in line with the recent return of the Ba`thist regime to tribal mores.
Others joined this campaign of condemnation. Tariq `Aziz pointed out that Husayn Kamil was only one cog in a well-oiled state machinery.21 Some accused him of stealing the people's money, then fleeing the country when asked to account for it.22 Midhat Mubarak, the minister of health, appropriately, described Kamil's problem as medical, the result of his brain tumor.23
In brief, the president cut his losses with the usual mix of pomposity and brutality, only this time with an added tribal element.
Filling the gaps. The choice of successors to Husayn Kamil demonstrated that the president would not be vengeful against officials who had been close to Kamil. Lt. General Engineer `Amr Muhammad Rashid succeeded Husayn Kamil as director (in an acting capacity) of the Military Industrialization Organization (MIO), though Rashid had previously been one of his three top advisors. Upon his nomination, Rashid accused Kamil of stealing $8.7 million of the MIO's funds and reported that documents containing much new information on Iraq's biological and nuclear weapons had just been found at Kamil's chicken farm in Suwayra, some 50 kilometers east of Baghdad.24 Other conspicuous subordinates of Husayn Kamil's were also unharmed, including Rashid's wife, Rabab, in charge of biological weapons; Maj. General Dr.`Amir Hammudi al-Sa`di, the brain behind the Iraqi medium-range missiles; and Ja`far Diya Ja`far, the scientist behind Iraq's military nuclear development. The regime even allowed Jordanian reporters to meet with some of the chief administrators who had been working under Husayn Kamil for years in the MIO, all of whom denounced him.
The American intelligence services saw "murderous purges,"25 but the only indiscriminate ex-communication applied to the two families directly involved: those of the Kamil brothers and of `Izz ad-Din Muhammad (but not the spouses' families: Saddam Husayn could hardly be expected to announce himself as a traitor).26 Even the opposition claimed only 120 arrests.27
Reintroducing party old-timers. Since May 1995, the president has been distancing his family from the highest-profile positions, and instead reintroducing party old-timers;28 the defections continued this trend. When Kamil was dismissed, his positions were again given to people who do not belong to the family or the tribe.29 In his denunciation of Husayn Kamil for betrayal, Saddam Husayn recalled the old days of underground activity, implying that only those who went through these hardships really understand how to rule. There are many other indications that he is becoming nostalgic or that he feels these old party friends of his are the most loyal and trustworthy.30 His new kitchen cabinet consists of party old-timer Vice President Taha Yasin Ramadan, who for a long time was kept at arm's length from the president; Deputy Prime Minister Tariq `Aziz; and the ministers of foreign affairs and information; only `Ali Hasan al-Majid serves as a reminder that the family is not out yet.31
This move away from the family is, however, partial and selective. A great many tribe members still hold very sensitive positions, especially in the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, and Special Security (the palace guard). Those who suffered most so far have been the president's half-brothers, the Ibrahims, and the families of two out of the four Majid brothers: Kamil Hasan al-Majid, believed to have died soon after his sons, Husayn and Saddam, defected; and Muhammad Hasan al-Majid, father of `Izz al-Din (who defected), Jasim, and Ibrahim.
Since the defection, Saddam Husayn may have decided to rein `Udayy in. There are rumors that he ordered his son's collection of cars burned32 and the minister of foreign affairs publicly stated that "`Udayy is not in a position to govern," for he is only an athlete: "He heads the Olympic Committee." The foreign minister also pooh-poohed rumors about `Udayy's being the heir apparent.33 This new turn of events resembles what happened in 1988-89, when `Udayy was punished (for killing his father's valet), only to be reinstated and even made more powerful than before. Without a doubt, `Udayy is his father's main liability, yet Saddam Husayn seems to think otherwise, or else he cannot control his son.
Saddam's younger son, Qusayy, appears to be the only relative who gained from the defections, having been promoted and given much more power than before. His personal permission is now needed for any troop movements in the vicinity of Baghdad, a precautionary move of Saddam's that makes hostile troop movements that much more difficult to carry out.
An impressive recovery does not mean that Husayn Kamil's defection left no mark on the regime. The obsessive efforts of leadership and media alike to downplay its importance means that the defection is very important and its potential for damage very great. In the end, however, it appears that the regime's damage control is reasonably successful. Damage from the defections has been far more limited than most observers expected.
For the outside world, these developments suggest that the embargo is working, for Husayn Kamil's defection seems to be, in part, the result of a general deterioration in Iraq and the inadequacy of Saddam Husayn's response to this dramatic change. Indeed, Saddam's decision making has been very badly affected by the crisis atmosphere growing in Iraq since 1994. Signs of this include his draconian punishments for economic crimes; his compulsory Islamization campaign; his troop movements against Kuwait in September-October 1994; and his threats, in mid-1995, of using U.N. supervisors as "living shields" to protect Iraqi factories against American bombings.34 These erratic decisions must contribute to a sense of the twilight of the gods in Baghdad.
The U.N. embargo, then, should continue as long as the Security Council resolutions have not all been adhered to, for it induces many at the regime's apex to consider a change of regime. At the same time, the Western powers should reassure the elite -- the army, party, Republican Guard, and tribal chiefs -- that they will be unharmed should the regime fall (save for those few with much blood on their hands). In return for cooperating with the United Nations and letting the country democratize, they can have a role to play in the new Iraq. This assurance may encourage more elements within the regime to take the risk to seek change.
1 Yedi`ot Ahronot, Aug. 14, 1995.
2 Jordan Times, Aug. 12, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report, Near East & South Asia (hereafter, FBIS), Aug. 14, 1995, p. 61.
3 Yedi`ot Aharonot, Aug. 14, 1995.
4 Agence France Presse, Aug. 10 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 10, 1995, p. 38.
5 For a survey of family tensions, see Tonya Ugoretz Buzby, "Saddam's Dysfunctional Family," on pp. XX-XX of this issue.
6 Ath-Thawra, Aug. 3, 1995.
7 Interview with senior U.N. diplomat with highly placed Saudi contacts, Oct. 13, 1995.
8 According to Tariq `Aziz, on Iraqi television, Aug. 11, 1995.
9 Agence France Presse, Aug. 13, 1995; and Iraqi News Agency, Aug. 13, 1995, both in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995, pp. 39-40.
10 The New York Times, Oct. 14, 1995. The French and Russian governments, Iraq's main supporters in the Security Council, decided to mute their demand that the embargo be lifted; so Ekeus received "strong expressions of support" for his report from all fifteen members of the Security Council.
11 Yedi`ot Aharonot, Aug. 14, 1995, pp. 1,5.
12 Jordan television, Aug. 23, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 24, 1995.
13 Jordan Radio, Aug. 14, in FBIS, Aug. 15, 1995; Al-Quds al-`Arabi, Aug. 11, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995.
14 Al-Aswaq (Amman), Aug. 14, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995, pp. 58-59.
15 Iraqi News Agency, Aug. 11, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 11, 1995, p. 19.
16 Iraqi News Agency, Aug. 17, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 18, 1995, p. 28.
17 Reuters, Aug. 12, 1995, quoting `Amid al-Khuli, editor of Ath-Thawra (Damascus) in an editorial.
18 Iraqi News Agency, Aug.10, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 10 1995, p.24; Radio Jordan, Aug. 10, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 10, 1995, p. 38.
19 Iraqi television, Aug. 11, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995, pp. 25-27.
20 Iraqi television, Aug. 11, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995, pp. 37-38.
21 British Broadcasting Corporation, Aug. 14, 1995.
22 Iraqi News Agency, Aug.14, in FBIS, Aug. 15, p. 35.
23 Ad-Dustur (Jordan), Aug. 21, in FBIS, Aug. 23, 1995, pp. 29-30.
24 Ar-Ra'y, Aug. 22, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 23, 1995, p. 30.
25 William Perry, quoted in The Washington Times, Aug. 16, 1995.
26 Iraqi News Agency, Aug. 17, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 18, 1995, p.20.
27 Voice of the People of Kurdistan (Clandestine), Aug. 18, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 21, 1995, p. 36.
28 Nonrelatives replaced Watban and `Ali Hasan al-Majid. Muhammad Zimam `Abd ar-Razzaq Aal Sa`dun, a lawyer and party veteran, became minister of the interior. Ex-Chief of Staff Sultan Hashim, who comes from a well-known Mosul family, became minister of defense. Saddam Husayn also dismissed other, more distant cousins, from such positions as deputy secretary general of the Military Bureau of the party and the president's "Chief Companion" and bodyguard.
29 Iraqi television, Aug. 10, in FBIS, Aug. 11, 1995, p. 18.
30 Samir Najam, a Sunni Arab party old-timer who participataed with Saddam Husayn in the assassination attempt on Prime Minister `Abd al-Karim Qasim's life in October 1959, is the new Deputy Secretary General of the Military Bureau; and Hatim Hamdan al-`Azzawi, another participant in that episode, is secretary of the Presidential Office.
31 Iraqi News Agency, Aug. 24, in FBIS, Aug. 25, 1995, p. 41.
32 The Sunday Times, Oct. 15, 1995.
33 Quoted in Jordan Times, Oct. 5-6, 1995.
34 Interview with senior U.N. official, U.N. headquarters, New York, Oct. 16, 1995.