Iraq: the Slow-Motion Fall of a Wily Dictator

Disillusion with Saddam grows among the elite

A coup has occurred in Baghdad.

Although a replacement to Saddam Hussein is not yet installed - and it will only be a replacement, not a really new leadership - the arrival of Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan Majeed and his party in Jordan is certain to have serious repercussions for the Iraqi president.

There is no armed rebellion in Iraq to date. Only purges (and probably executions) in the wake of their flight. It is still unclear what support the chief defectors, General Kamel and his brother and their wives (two daughters of the Iraqi president), can muster inside the beleaguered nation. But the dramatic escape into Jordan, probably with Washington's help, of these members of Iraq's innermost power circle is a major development. It may be the wedge that is needed to remove Saddam from power. Washington must have been searching for a person such as Kamel, however incompetent a leader he may actually be, and despite his surely being tainted by past military blunders and complicity with his father-in-law.

The defection from Saddam Hussein's family and military circle comes at a critical time. United Nations trade sanctions, now in place for five years, show no sign of a letup even though Baghdad has been assuring its people that there would be a break soon. That promise was for the elite as well as the middle class. It was important even though the crippling sanctions hardly affected the lifestyle of the elite.

Debates went on within Iraq's innermost power circle about the best strategy to have the embargo lifted. The ruling circle, even in its comfort, is humiliated and demoralized seeing the modern nation they themselves designed, and took immense pride in, crumble. If they felt nothing for individuals in it, they cared about their institutions: universities, a fine medical system, museums, engineering accomplishments, and their material modernity, as much as weaponry. Moreover, Iraq's leadership, despite its public scorn for the Western stance toward it, was very keen to reestablish ties with former friends, most especially with the United States and Britain, as odd as that may appear.

The embargo didn't really affect the elite in material terms. Yet it has isolated them in ways they could not stand. Despite the bravado of its leader and his deputy foreign minister, Tareq Aziz, Iraq was desperate to reenter the world community. Contrary to expectations, Iraqis never spurned the US after their defeat in the Gulf war; indeed they insist that the friendship and cooperation they once enjoyed could and should be restored.

Thus, a major question that has occupied Iraqis is how to gain legitimacy with the West. There was much discussion about how much they should acquiesce: how to answer United Nations weapons inspectors; whether to recognize Kuwait (Iraq finally agreed to a demarcation favorable to Kuwait); how essential total compliance would be to lifting the sanctions, and so forth. These policy differences were less a matter of withholding really relevant information from the UN, and more an issue of national pride, of how much Iraqis could hold on to, of how total was their defeat. Some argued for unlimited acquiescence, others for partial. If those arguing limited cooperation won in Baghdad, they lost at the UN. As the years went on and this position failed to effect any change in UN or US policy, dissension must have increased. Baghdad recently announced changes at the ministerial level. Breaking with past practices, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf himself came to New York in July for the regular 60 day review of the UN sanctions. Usually Tareq Aziz, the high-profile deputy foreign minister, handles these meetings. Also, Sahaf met with King Hussein of Jordan en route back to Baghdad.

Other policy differences drove wedges between Iraq's decisionmakers. For example, Baghdad's unconditional release of two Americans it caught trespassing and sentenced to prison must have angered some in Iraq's central command. Then, some Iraqis wanted to broaden ties with Iran; others did not. Same with the Kurds.

Along with those policy matters came the rising influence of the president's eldest son, Uday. Although seen as a possible successor, Uday Hussein may be more disliked than his father. Defection of the Kamel brothers, Uday's own brothers-in-law, could well be an outcome of son No. 1's growing power and, if Kamel and Uday are adversaries, a slap in his face. Whatever insiders thought of the Kamel brothers, after this fiasco one cannot imagine the Iraqi leadership enjoying respect in this nation's macho military culture. So the flight of these two brothers and their sizable party, along with their wives, sisters of Uday, can only mean serious disarray inside Iraq.

How the final stages of the coup will happen remains unclear. Some Iraqi exiles simply say they hope it comes swiftly. Opposition figures are welcoming Kamel to their ranks. Washington clearly backs the would-be leader; US reports speak of his knowledge of military secrets. Suggestions that Kamel masterminded Iraq's military industrial scheme likely are exaggerations. In any case, Iraq's military policy was a disaster.

It is troubling that no one seems to be asking what kind of a person Hussein Kamel is. In his press conferences, he does not convey any special quality. Nor does he give even a hint of interest in establishing a civil society in Iraq, should he overthrow Saddam. Neither his protector, Jordan's King Hussein, nor exiled Iraqis express any acclaim for the person of Hussein Kamel. All that he could deliver is another military regime, perhaps little different from the present one.

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