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Tonya Ugoretz Buzby is managing editor of Middle East Quarterly.

When Saddam Husayn's two sons-in-law, their wives, and others defected from Iraq in August 1995, media accounts concentrated on the sons-in-law, Husayn Kamil and Saddam Kamil, due to their high positions in the regime, almost completely ignoring the daughters. But the daughters' defections are equally, if not more, indicative of the turmoil within Iraq's ruling family.

This is hardly the first time that dissension within the family has affected matters of state, nor is it likely to be the last. Ties between Saddam and his relatives have been likened to those of the fictitious Corleone family of The Godfather. The "Don from Tikrit"1 apportions power and wealth, and in return his relatives lie, cheat, steal, and murder on his behalf. However, the reality in Iraq is far more frightening than fiction, and more consequential, for squabbles among the ruling family of a powerful rogue state have important repercussions for the country and the outside world. To understand the tensions, it helps to know the major players in Saddam's family and what they have done in the past, as an indication of what they are likely to do in the future.


According to official sources,2 Saddam Husayn at-Takriti, whose name appropriately enough means "one who confronts," was born on April 28, 1937, in the village of Al-Awja, near the town of Tikrit. Saddam never knew his father, Husayn al-Majid,3 though accounts differ as to whether he died or abandoned his family. Saddam initially was raised by his mother, Subha, and stepfather, Ibrahim Hasan, who reportedly disliked Saddam and abused him. For years, Ibrahim did not allow Saddam an education but instead forced the child to tend sheep and steal for him. Saddam's own recollections of his childhood are said to be very unhappy, and his attitude toward his stepfather almost explicity hostile.

Envious that his cousin `Adnan Khayrallah was able to attend school, Saddam in 1947 went to live with `Adnan's father, Khayrallah Tulfa, beginning his formal education that year at the advanced age of ten. Khayrallah had just finished serving a prison term for his minor role in a 1941 coup that was suppressed by the British. His imprisonment had a lasting impact on Saddam, who under Khayrallah's tutelage adopted strongly anti-imperialist and pro-Nazi Darwish sentiments. Khayrallah also may have profoundly influenced Saddam's violent ways: in the 1950s, they were arrested together for murdering one or two men, one possibly a relative. Under the Ba`th, Khayrrallah served as governor of Baghdad Province.

Saddam soon showed his own violent propensities. In 1959, as a newly minted member of the Ba`th Party, he took part in the attempted murder of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim, the dictator who had overthrown the Hashemite monarchy a year before.4 Saddam was injured in the attempt and escaped to Syria. After three months in Damascus he went to Cairo, and while there decided to marry Khayrallah's daughter, his cousin Sajida Tulfah, a high school teacher in Baghdad.

Saddam returned to Iraq in 1963, after the Ba`th Party had seized power. His power base weak after years in exile, Saddam was assigned a minor role as an interrogator and torturer. Though this period of Ba`thi rule lasted only nine months, Saddam used every opportunity to build his power. He allied himself with a distant relative, General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, and with his support became secretary of the Provisional Regional Command in 1964. When Bakr became president of a second Ba`thist regime in 1968, the thirty-one-year-old Saddam was made deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. After eleven years as number-two, "Saddam apparently . . . decided he was ready to replace al-Bakr," journalist Simon Henderson notes.5 He arranged for Bakr's resignation and took over as president on July 16, 1979.

Trying to surround himself with people he can trust, a large part of Saddam's ruling elite, like his family, hails from Tikrit. Until recently, for example, a half-brother, Watban Ibrahim, was interior minister; a cousin, `Ali Hasan al-Majid, was defense minister; and two sons-in-law, Husayn Kamil and Saddam Kamil, were in charge of weapons programs and part of security services, respectively. As The Jerusalem Post's foreign editor Thomas O'Dwyer puts it, "Saddam has dragged the Tikritis--friends and relatives of his youth--like a security blanket along his bloody trail to Baghdad."6 Even so, Iraq's ruling circle is rife with conflict. Its core, the family, has split into three camps, according to their relations with Saddam, with the sons, cousins, and half-brothers all vying for influence.


Saddam and Sajida have five children, the two oldest of whom are the sons, `Udayy and Qusay.

`Udayy Saddam Husayn. Saddam reportedly sees `Udayy, born in 1964, as his heir apparent. Once known primarily for his taste in sports cars and women, `Udayy now has diverse powers. Starting from his chairmanship of the Olympic Committee, he has acquired a daily newspaper (Babil), a sports paper (Al-Ba`th al-Riyadi), a weekly magazine (Ar-Rafidayn) and a youth television and radio network (Shabab). He recently founded Saddam's Fida'in--a grouping of youth commando units charged with protecting the regime. He oversees foreign oil sales, much of the domestic economy, and some of the issues concerned with international sanctions. He has many other cultural, social, security, and economic responsibilities, and is even beginning to dabble in military matters.

`Udayy's behavior is inversely proportionate to his power: the more he controls, the worse he acts. Perhaps the most famous incident was the October 1988 murder of Saddam's trusted valet, Kamil Hanna Juju. Henderson 80 The many versions of this attack all agree on the motive: `Udayy was angry over the valet's role as a go-between for Saddam and his new mistress (and eventual second wife), Samira Shahbandar, a relationship that to `Udayy dishonored his mother and therefore himself. As best as can be determined, `Udayy's unhappiness with Hanna was aggravated when he was excluded from a party Hanna threw at Saddam's behest for Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egypt's President Husni Mubarak. On the shooting off of celebratory shots into the air, one of `Udayy's men reportedly complained about the noise, to which Hanna replied, "Tell `Udayy I don't take orders from babies." A drunken `Udayy then stormed the party, carrying a German-made nightstick equipped with a stiletto and electric prods, and slashed Hanna's neck, then shot him. `Udayy then fled the scene, swallowed pills, and ended up in the hospital. While recovering, Saddam reportedly warned his son, "If Hanna dies, so will you."7 The valet did indeed die but Saddam permitted `Udayy to leave the country until his feelings had cooled enough for his son to return.

Since that incident, `Udayy has gradually assumed greater power for himself while following in his father's murderous footsteps. Stories about his penchant for violence are well-known. Most recently, on August 7, 1995, after a gathering to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the end of the Iran-Iraq War, `Udayy is said to have shot his uncle Watban and killed Watban's son Ahmad, as well as two or more other people. Motives for this shooting vary: one has a cousin (Lu'ay, half-brother of the late defense minister `Adnan Khayrallah) and ally complaining to `Udayy that Watban had publicly slapped him the day before;8 another has `Udayy angry at Watban for siding against him (and with Husayn Kamil) at that gathering.9

The extent of `Udayy's power is unclear. Most observers say it rivals even that of his father. "Saddam has entrusted his safety and personal security to Uday and Qusay," says one exile. After the defection of Husayn Kamil and his party, `Udayy reportedly ordered that all Iraqi officials -- including Saddam -- were forbidden to cross through the Tribil area (where the defectors had made their escape) without "written approval from `Udayy himself."10 As Newsweek wrote, "It is not clear whether Saddam is still the master of his turbulent family--or its most prominent hostage."11 Others scoff at this interpretation and say that Saddam dominates his son and is not bothered by his violent propensities, and thus has no need to rein him in.

`Udayy's relations with women give some sense of his character. Latif Yahia, an Iraqi man who served as `Udayy's double from 1987 to the end of the Kuwait war, recalls that "the surest path to [`Udayy's] ear . . . was to bring him a woman. . . . Bodyguards got used to seeing women emerge battered from his bedroom." `Udayy's fiance, the daughter of Barzan Ibrahim, reportedly fled Baghdad to escape `Udayy's abuse.12 According to Husayn Kamil, "[`Udayy] has killed six women. However, no one has punished him for his deeds."13 Perhaps the most gruesome story is one related by Yahia, who says he was among those watching when `Udayy retaliated against a Baghdad University student who had complained to friends about `Udayy's abusing her; he had her stripped naked, covered with honey, and then killed by three starving Dobermans.14 "If it is possible to have someone who is worse than his father, he is it," says a former ranking member of the ruling elite.15

Qusay Saddam Husayn. Comparatively little is heard of Saddam's younger son. Born in 1967, Qusay runs Saddam's special security force. It not only protects the ruler but also "employs the bodyguards of ministers and Ba`th Party officials who are tasked not only with protecting these people but also arresting them if they become suspect."16 Some exiles suggest that Qusay in fact wields more power than his older brother. Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, a leading opposition group in exile, believes that Qusay, as head of the regime's security services, is more likely than `Udayy to succeed their father.17 A former Iraqi official points out that the Fida'in Corps, apparently under `Udayy's control, ultimately comes under Qusay's purview in his capacity as head of security forces.18

We know little about the extent of cooperation or rivalry between Saddam's sons, and what action either or both might take to usurp their father. David Pryce-Jones, a keen student of Middle Eastern power politics, observes that if Arab history is any indicator, "Uday and Qusay have two decisions to make: First, whether it advances them best to kill their father or to wait for someone else to do so, and then strike out for absolute power; and second, which of them will down the other."19


`Adnan Khayrallah Tulfa. The current period of family strife can be traced back to May 1989 and the death of Saddam's cousin and close friend from childhood, `Adnan Khayrallah. Once again, the president's involvement with Shahbandar, ex-wife of the head of Iraqi Airways, was the likely cause of conflict. `Adnan's death is generally attributed to a public disagreement with Saddam over the affair. As the brother of Saddam's first wife Sajida, the defense minister sided with his sister's complaints when the affair became public knowledge -- a betrayal in Saddam eyes. Saddam's uncle Khayrallah also expressed unhappiness with the situation. Soon thereafter, Khayrallah Tulfa was stripped of his possessions; and his son was killed in a helicopter crash that, though probably an accident, is widely believed to have been arranged by Saddam.

`Ali Hasan al-Majid. During his tenure as chief of all operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, `Ali Hasan earned the dubious nickname al-Kimawi ("chemical") for having ordered the gassing of his own country's Kurdish population in 1987-88. He confirmed this reputation as the brutal governor of Iraq's "nineteenth province" during the occupation of Kuwait. Perhaps becoming too powerful for Saddam's liking, `Ali in July 1995 was dismissed altogether from the ministry of defense. In the aftermath of the defections, however, Saddam may turn to him again. As the doyen of Husayn Kamil's family, `Ali sent a telegram to the president on August 14, asserting that the whole family had decided "the traitor's blood"20--thereby authorizing the killing of his own nephew in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the president. And he accompanied `Udayy to Jordan to meet with King Husayn immediately following the defections.

Husayn Kamil al-Majid. By now the internationally best known cousin of Saddam's, Husayn Kamil defected along with his brother Saddam Kamil and their families on August 8, 1995.

Though (like Saddam) a school dropout, the president promoted him until he reached the rank of four-star general; and permitted him to marry his eldest daughter Raghad. That Saddam allowed Husayn and his brother to marry his daughters irritated other family members, who saw the marriages as increasing the Majids' power. In 1994, `Udayy reportedly refused his youngest sister Hala's hand in marriage to Husayn Kamil's youngest brother, Hakim.21

Husayn was a close adviser to the president who served him in a variety of posts, including minister of industry and minerals as well as director of the Military Industrialization Organization. Husayn helped establish and expand the Republican Guard; he oversaw the Special Guard, the Republican Guard, military industries, and civil industries. He is largely credited with building up Iraq's nonconventional weapons capabilities prior to the Kuwait war. A Western diplomat remarked in early 1991 that he swaggered with "the confidence that comes from sleeping with the president's daughter";22 and Saddam once commented that "he was pleased to see a young man [Husayn Kamil] capable of achieving anything and everything."23

Husayn Kamil is widely seen as a pragmatist, and this quality may have gotten him in trouble with the ruling family. He is reported, just prior to defecting in August 1995, to have urged the president to comply with U.N. resolutions and thereby win relief from the international sanctions against Iraq.24 Husayn found support for this argument from his brother Saddam Kamil and possibly from the president's half-brothers.25 `Udayy, Qusay, and `Ali Hasan reportedly opposed his plan, and heated discussion between the factions took place. Saddam may have understood Husayn to mean that he had failed to find a solution to his country's crisis and should voluntarily step down.26 In any case, Husayn fled Iraq shortly after the meeting. "He decided to defect because he became frightened that `Udayy was now getting strong enough to really take care of him," an Iraqi official stated. "I think he ran for his life."27

Though Washington may look to Husayn as a possible alternative to Saddam, his hands too are dirty. As a top member of the regime, he shares indirect responsibility for Saddam's many atrocities and direct responsibility for a few of his own. During the 1991 Shi`i uprising in southern Iraq, Yahia tells of seeing Husayn force Shi`i men to drink gasoline, then shoot them with exploding bullets to make them burst into fire.28 Kanan Makiya, author of the acclaimed study Republic of Fear, believes Husayn would appear "in the top five or six" of any list of the top twenty Iraqis most responsible for killings and torture since Saddam came to power.29

Saddam Kamil al-Majid. Like Qusay, less is known about this younger brother, yet the origins of Saddam Kamil's rise to power are particularly interesting. His career was launched with a starring role as none other than the president himself in a film called The Long Days. His performance as the heroic young Saddam Husayn caught the president's attention (Saddam has an apparent weakness for people in which he sees his own image) and prompted him to transfer Saddam Kamil from the Academy of Fine Arts to the Military Academy.30 After graduating as an officer, Saddam joined the Republican Guard, commanded by his older brother. He went on to marry Saddam Husayn's middle daughter, Rana, and to command Special Security and efforts against opposition groups.31

In all the attention to the Kamil brothers, the decision of their wives, Saddam's daughters, to defect has gone curiously without notice. And yet, it may well be that their turning against him had far more impact on Saddam. In the end, the sons-in-law were functionaries whom Saddam had made important, but Raghad and Rana are his immediate family. We do not know if he is heartbroken by their absence, but we do know he must be humiliated. Among Arabs, a woman's loyalty goes first to the father, not the husband. Joseph Ginat, an anthropologist, notes that Arab families do not attend the wedding of a daughter, as a symbol that "she has not left her home and that she continues to belong to her family of origin. It also means, in effect, that she is still under the control of her father."32 A father is expected to control his females -- and especially a father with Saddam's power.

For a daughter to desert her father is the ultimate dishonor -- and two is unspeakable. Tellingly, Saddam did not mention his daughters' escape in his speech to the Iraqi people following the defections.33 "This is the first time that Saddam feels defeated," says Bazzaz. "The escape of President Saddam's daughters has dealt a painful blow to their father," a Jordanian newspaper confirms. "Eyewitnesses said their escape made the Iraqi president cry in front of the audience when he was informed about his daughters' defection."34


After Saddam's father died or left the family, his mother Subha set her sights on a married man, Ibrahim Hasan. Even though Muslim men are allowed four wives, Subha persuaded Ibrahim to leave his wife before marrying her; "Subha insisted on being the only one."35 They had three sons.

Barzan Ibrahim Hasan. Said to once have been the closest to Saddam of his half-brothers, Barzan Ibrahim served as head of the notorious Iraqi intelligence service, the mukhabarat, from 1974 to 1983. In that final year, he and his brothers Watban and Sab`awi were stripped of their positions, most likely because they disapproved of Raghad's marriage to Husayn Kamil rather than to Barzan's son, a move seen as shifting power the cousins' way.

Barzan was appointed by Saddam in 1989 as Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, which is seen as a convenient way of exiling him. Referred to as Saddam's banker, he keeps an eye on Saddam's hard currency reserves abroad. Though he currently holds a cabinet rank as presidential adviser, Barzan is seen to be on the wrong side of the family divide. After the defections, he vehemently criticized the governing abilities of `Udayy, saying that "he, like Husayn Kamil, is not qualified to govern, nor does he know the limits of his size and ability."36

Watban Ibrahim Hasan. Watban Ibrahim served as governor of Saddam Husayn's native province, Salah ad-Din, until 1983, when he too was removed from his post. In 1991, he was named interior minister, but was removed from this post in May 1995. He currently is an adviser to the president, a meaningless job.

As mentioned, Watban was a recent target of `Udayy's temper, and continues his recovery from as many as nine gunshot wounds and a possible leg amputation. The extent of his injuries was hinted at by Husayn Kamil in an interview he gave to the German publication Stern: "Watban is still alive, but it would be better for him to be dead, because his lower abdomen and genitals have been completely destroyed. Everyone knows that `Udayy is capable of something like that."37 Perhaps as compensation from Saddam, it is rumored that he will soon be appointed to a senior post at the Presidential Office.38

Sab`awi Ibrahim Hasan. Referred to by Saddam as "the idiot among my brothers," Sab`awi was deputy chief of the mukhabarat until 1983. He was brought back as head of the mukhabarat in 1989, though this is thought to be a largely ceremonial post.


Saad al-Bazzaz believes "Iraq needs an alternative which is an institution, not an individual. . . . Who's in and who's out is not important."39 This sentiment is echoed by analysts of the regime, who believe its nature precludes it from producing a viable opposition figure. Muhammad Bahr al-`Ulum, a member of the Presidential Council of the Iraqi National Congress, holds that "if international powers want to replace Saddam Husayn with the likes of Husayn Kamil, that would be no more than replacing one ugly face with another just like it."40 The same could easily be said of the president's son `Udayy.

It would seem that much as the United States would like to be rid of Saddam Husayn, it cannot pin its hopes on Husayn Kamil or anyone tied to the current regime. There is a note of desperation in its search for his successor: Iraqis can take little comfort in the report that "although [Husayn Kamil] came across as cold and ruthless, the Americans also noted that he was one of the few members of Saddam Husayn's Tikriti clan who had not personally killed anybody."41

What will be the end of this feuding family? Samir Shakir, deputy leader of the Iraqi Democratic Party, argues that "to understand the reality of the regime, we have to imagine a Mafia family ruling a country. . . . Nobody trusts anybody in this family, and he who stays until the end wins." Or does he? Saddam surely wants to be that remaining figure: in the words of Saïd Aburish, "He will do whatever is required to make sure that any corpses on the floor of the palace do not include his own."42 But the competition he foments within his family risks the possibility that he will one day be left standing alone--without an heir. In this way, too, he may come to resemble Michael Corleone, who at the end of the Godfather trilogy is seen from a distance as a solitary figure standing at the grave of his daughter, the final victim of his family business. He then drops dead, alone.


1 Judith Miller and Laurie Mylorie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (New York: Times Books, 1990) p. 24.
2 The following account derives from a mix of fact and rumor, as Saddam's Iraq knows few verities, we piece reports together, knowing full will that some of them may be false.
3 Iraqis do not have last names as understood in the West; rather, they do conflate the traditional formulation (Saddam son of Husayn) and in this fashion carry two or three names. For consistency's sake, we use the given names of Saddam's family, except where clarity require two names.
4 On this incident, see Uriel Dann, Iraq under Qassem: A Political History, 1958-1963 (New York: Praeger, 1969), chap. 19.
5 Simon Henderson, Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein's Ambition for Iraq (San Francisco, Calif.: Mercury House, 1991), p. 76.
6 The Jerusalem Post, international ed., Aug. 26, 1995.
7 The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 1995.
8 Al-Hayat, Aug. 16, 1995, in Foreign Broadcast.
9 Al-Bilad (Amman), Aug. 16, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 17, 1995.
10 Ibid.
11 Newsweek, Aug. 28, 1995.
12 The Washington Times, Aug. 23, 1995.
13 Stern (Hamburg), Aug. 31, 1995, in FBIS, Sept. 1, 1995.
14 The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 1995.
15 The New York Times, Aug. 15, 1995.
16 Agence France Press, Aug. 15, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 15, 1995.
17 El Mundo (Madrid), Aug. 13, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 15, 1995.
18 Conversation with author, Sept. 27, 1995.
19 David Pryce-Jones, "The daggers are out in Iraq," The Jerusalem Post, international. ed., Sept. 2, 1995.
20 Iraqi Television, Aug. 12, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995.
21 Iraqi Broadcasting Corporation (London), Aug. 16, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 17, 1995.
22 Quoted in Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein's Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991), p. 72.
23 Henderson, Instant Empire, p. 88.
24 The New York Times, Aug. 12, 1995.
25 Al-Bilad, Aug. 17, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 17, 1995.
26 Al-Muharrir (Paris), Aug. 14, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995.
27 The New York Times, Aug. 15, 1995.
28 The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 1995.
29 The Washington Times, Aug. 23, 1995.
30 Al-Bilad, Aug. 16, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 17, 1995.
31 Ibid.
32 Joseph Ginat, Blood Disputes among Bedouin and Rural Arabs in Israel (Pittsburgh Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), p. 115.
33 Iraq Television Network, Aug. 11, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 14, 1995. In the speech, Saddam attacked Husayn Kamil, calling him a Judas and his actions "the treason of the treacherous."
34 Al-Bilad, Aug. 16, 1995, in FBIS, Aug. 17, 1995.
35 Miller and Mylorie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf, P. 26.
36 Al-Hayat, Aug. 31, 1995, in FBIS, Sept. 1, 1995.
37 Stern (Hamburg), Aug 31, 1995, in FBIS, Sept. 1, 1995.
38 Voice of Iraqi People (Clandestine), Sept. 3, 1995, in FBIS, Sept. 3, 1995.
39 Al-Majalla (London), May 28, 1995., in FBIS, July 20, 1995.
40 Al-Hayat, Aug. 12, 1995, in FBIS Aug. 15, 1995.
41 Foreign Report, Aug. 17, 1995.
42 Quoted in Pryce-Jones, "The daggers are out in Iraq."