JERUSALEM — THE defection of Iraqi Industry Minister Maj Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan exposes a potentially mortal rift in Saddam Hussein's inner circle and wrecks the Iraqi leader's hopes of international rehabilitation, diplomats and analysts say.
Mr. Hussein Kamel fled Iraq last Tuesday with his brother, Lt.-Col. Saddam Kamel Hassan, who headed Saddam's presidential guard, and an entourage of more than 15 military officers and aides. The brothers - both cousins of Saddam - are married to Saddam's daughters.
Hussein Kamel, arguably one of the most powerful men in Saddam's inner circle, vowed at a press conference in Amman on Saturday to topple the Iraqi leader and have international sanctions against Iraq lifted.
He said that his defection shook the Saddam regime and predicted arbitrary security sweeps and executions in Iraq. He said that he would reveal Iraqi military secrets only if it was in the interests of the country.
"We are calling on the officers of the Iraqi Army, the officers of the Republican guards, the officers of the special guards, the civil servants of the Iraqi state, and all the Iraqi society to be ready for this important change," Hussein Kamel said.
Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel are members of the al-Majid clan who hail from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. There have been reports of a power struggle between Saddam's al-Tikriti clan and the al-Majid clan. An assassination attempt was made on Saddam's eldest son, Udai, in March that was attributed to the family feud.
Hussein Kamel's record would make him an acceptable alternative to Saddam and someone whom the West could deal with in the post-Saddam era, Western diplomats say.
But they caution that Hussein Kamel's defection will only lead to a change in leadership if remaining dissident elements are prepared to confront Saddam - a task that could prove difficult with Saddam's pervasive security apparatus.
"It all depends now on what happens next," a senior European diplomat told the Monitor in a telephone interview from Baghdad yesterday
"There are more soldiers in the streets, and people are talking in hushed tones about the recent events, but otherwise it looks like a normal day in Baghdad," he said.
"We are waiting to see what happens now," said the diplomat, predicting that a series of government changes could be ordered soon by Saddam in the wake of the defections.
The diplomat said that one of the most immediate effects of the defections was that the Iraqi dinar had plummeted to a new low of about 2,000 to the US dollar in the past few days. Just two months ago, the ratio was 1,200 dinars to the dollar.
He said that apart from the statement by Saddam branding Hussein Kamel as a traitor and comparing him to Judas, the official Iraqi media had maintained silence regarding the statements of Hussein Kamel or the international impact of his dramatic defection.
Members of Hussein Kamel's family and the state-controlled Iraqi media have issued thinly veiled calls for his assassination.
Amatzi Baram, an Israeli historian who monitors developments in Iraq, says that Hussein Kamel's defection indicated that the Iraqi ship was sinking, but there would not necessarily be a connection between his defection and the next development inside Iraq.
"There is no doubt that the inner circle of support for Saddam is crumbling," says Mr. Baram, who heads the department of Middle East history at Israel's Haifa University. "But the most telling aspect of Hussein Kamel's defection is that he decided to flee rather than to plan a coup d'etat against Saddam.
"What people don't realize is that Iraq is turning into another Cuba.... It is a protracted siege situation.
"The international community will be prepared to do business with Hussein Kamel. But his action will only have broader consequences if he receives collaboration from elements in Baghdad. There is no doubt that the sense of confidence the ruling elite once had in the Saddam regime is eroding rapidly.... They increasingly see the regime as unstable," Baram adds.
But Western diplomats were cautious about the defections posing any immediate threat to Saddam's regime.
"I don't think that the defections will lead directly to the fall of the regime, but they do drive a horse and coaches through the regime of Saddam Hussein as presently constituted," says a Western diplomat based in Amman who closely monitors events in Iraq.
"The biggest problem in Iraq is that there is a huge political vacuum outside Saddam's inner circle, and there is no one capable of taking over the reins of power," the diplomat says.
"Those within the inner circle who could take over either have too much of a vested interest in the regime continuing, or they fear for their lives," he says.
"Hussein Kamel played the role of a technocrat who advocated grudging cooperation with the UN to have the oil embargo lifted, and his departure leaves a question mark over the position of the ministers of oil, transport, communications, and agriculture who were seen as being part of his sphere of influence," the diplomat says.
Building military machine
Hussein Kamel was appointed to head the crucial Military Industrialization Commission on June 30 this year, putting him in charge of negotiations with the UN commission monitoring the destruction of Iraq's biological, chemical, nuclear, and ballistic weapons.
After gaining his new position, he maintained his role as industry minister, responsible for the reconstruction of Iraq following the Gulf war.
He is widely regarded as the leading figure in Iraq's weapons programs and the most important person responsible for the production of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. He was also in charge of military and industrial reconstruction in the wake of the Gulf war.
The destruction of Iraq's biological warfare capacity has become the key issue delaying a favorable review by the UN Security Council of its efforts to comply with UN conditions for the lifting of the four-year-old oil embargo imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war.
Saddam dismissed Hussein Kamel from his post on Wednesday, a day after he fled the country. He is the third member of Saddam's family to be dismissed from a senior ministerial post in the past three months The brothers were granted political asylum by Jordan's King Hussein Thursday.
President Clinton, congratulating King Hussein for his "courage" on Friday, pledged military support for Jordan in the event of a retaliation by Baghdad, a prospect that Western diplomats regard as unlikely.