THE defection of close associates and relatives of Saddam Hussein to Jordan could accelerate the crumbling of the Iraqi dictator's regime. But that process won't be quick.
Rumors of dissension within Saddam's hermetically sealed ranks have been emanating from Iraq for months. But this exodus of key figures, particularly Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, represents the first open crack.
The general has called for Saddam's removal and seems prepared to lead such an effort.
But it's not clear that he has any ability to orchestrate this move from outside the country. Inside Iraq, Hussein Kamel was the organizing genius behind Saddam's military-industrial complex. He exercised tremendous authority, and he probably ran head-on into the ambitions of others in Saddam's entourage, notably the leader's son, Uday, who is positioned to succeed his father.
Hussein Kamel's decision to leave the country, at the least, indicates that he, and perhaps others high in the ranks, recognize that Saddam's star is sinking fast and that Iraq has little hope of reviving its economic fortunes while the dictator remains. It also indicates that the sanctions are having the intended side effect of forcing rethinking within Iraq.
A debate has simmered in Baghdad over how best to respond to the international pressures. Those who sympathized with Hussein Kamel's views are no doubt being purged. But Saddam's ability to apply the iron fist could be ebbing. He has suffered a major embarrassment; others could follow.
The reshaping of Iraqi politics won't happen overnight - Saddam's security system still has life in it - but it is probably under way.