• U.S.

THE BORGIAS OF BAGHDAD

6 minute read
George J. Church

Why did the U.S. announce last week that it was starting a new buildup of military equipment and supplies in the Persian Gulf, as well as dispatching 1,400 troops to the Kuwaiti desert for war games? Largely, it would seem, to tout the Clinton Administration’s alertness to any new military threat from Iraq–a threat that Iraq’s neighbors, including Kuwait, could discern no sign of. Moreover, if Saddam Hussein did order any menacing maneuvers, he might only dramatize the last thing he wants to point out: the rapid decline of his strength as an international bogeyman.

Stories filtering out of Iraq in the wake of the defection of two of the dictator’s military commanders (and sons-in-law) suggest that Saddam’s army is a threat mainly to other Iraqis. Amatzia Baram, chairman of the department of Middle Eastern history at Haifa University, calculates that up to 30% of Saddam’s fighting troops, unable to subsist on meager army rations, have deserted, and many now roam the country as armed bandits. The rest are hardly in top shape. According to diplomatic and academic sources in Britain, when Saddam massed troops near the Kuwaiti border last summer, the maneuvers flopped. Trucks broke down, and when the Iraqis retreated, valuable equipment was left in the desert for weeks. The army, says Andrew Rathmell of Exeter University’s Center for Arab Gulf Studies, “has equipment enough to fight, but morale and organization are the problem. The systems do not work.”

The military failings, in turn, point to a major flaw in Saddam’s rule. In his 27 years in power, the dictator has steadily narrowed his own base of support. He long ago weakened the Baath Party socialists who overthrew the old monarchy, and has concentrated power in his own extended family. Along the way, he has lost, killed or driven away most of his supporters who have shown any brains or ability. And now Saddam’s family itself is torn by betrayals and blood feuds. Many of its members have also been sacked, exiled or executed. The latest example is Hussein Kamel al-Majid, the former Armaments Minister, who fled to Jordan in early August with his brother Saddam Kamel, the head of Saddam Hussein’s personal guard, and their wives, two of Saddam’s daughters.

Combined with a severe U.S.-led trade embargo, the disappearance of the capable has left a country where nothing much works anymore, a land whose economy, as well as its army, is badly mismanaged. Consequently, while he can still engage in terrorism, Saddam no longer inspires fear in his neighbors. King Hussein of Jordan supported Iraq during the Gulf War, and Jordan has been Iraq’s only outlet to the outside world during the years of the embargo. Now King Hussein shelters the defectors and hints that Saddam should be overthrown.

None of this means that the dictator’s fall is imminent. The embargo has actually increased the wealth of the family by making its control of black markets that much more profitable. U.S. satellite photography indicates that since the Gulf War, the family has built 50 new palaces or luxury residences, bringing the total to 78. U.S. officials set the cost of the building spree at about $1.5 billion. One complex at Lake Tharthar is five times the size of the White House and 50% bigger than Versailles. Attempts to track down, or even estimate, the wealth Saddam has stashed abroad have been largely fruitless. Those riches are enough, at the very least, to merit the full-time attention of Saddam’s half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti. Barzan, a one-time spymaster and reputed assassin, was once sent into exile by Saddam but today supervises the family’s overseas bank accounts from a lavish Swiss villa overlooking Lake Geneva. His control of the family’s money is said to be so great that Saddam does not dare move against him.

Inside Iraq, Saddam has lost none of his talent for keeping potential opponents paralyzed with fear. One reported ploy is to send provocateurs to lure an official into joining a phony plot against Saddam. In May the large Dulaymi tribe rose in a quickly suppressed revolt, incensed because the headless corpse of one of its leaders, an air force general, had been delivered from Baghdad to his kinsmen. The rebels believed the general had failed to report a fake conspiracy he had been invited to join but refused. Even Hussein Kamel did not dare try to organize a real plot but decided to flee instead.

Exactly why he did so is the subject of conflicting stories, but all begin with a furious quarrel at a family gathering. The feast apparently ended not only with a threat by Saddam’s son Uday to have Hussein Kamel arrested, but with a fusillade of gunfire that left Saddam’s half-brother Wathban wounded and hospitalized. Uday had long been feuding with Uncle Wathban. A year ago, when a car bomb exploded in Baghdad, the TV station run by Uday eagerly showed footage of the damage and blamed negligence by police who were under the control of Wathban, then Interior Minister. Wathban closed Uday’s TV station as well as his radio station in revenge, but Uday persuaded his father to put them back on the air.

Uday seems to be second in power these days (Saddam’s other son Qusay has stayed out of the limelight). Tales of his violent ways are legion. He cruises the streets of Baghdad in a red Ferrari scouting for pretty women, whom is pals seize and bring to him. His temper once proved too much even for Saddam, who exiled him briefly after he bludgeoned a servant to death. Ac cording to Israeli intelligence, when the Iraqi government banned the sale of American cigarettes in 1992, Uday had tobacconists who disobeyed hanged from light poles outside their shops.

Though the intensified family feuding hardly helps Saddam, it seems unlikely to bring him down unless it produces a figure the opposition can rally around. Hussein Kamel is hardly the man; many of Saddam’s foes consider him a thug. According to one story, during the revolt by Iraqi Shi’ites that followed the Gulf War, Hussein Kamel, in pursuit of rebel leaders holed up inside a mosque containing the tomb of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad whom Shi’ites especially revere, stood on a tank outside the building and apostrophized: “I am Hussein, and you are Hussein. Let’s see who is the stronger.” He then ordered artillery fire that reduced the mosque to rubble.

Who else is there? According to exiles, members of Saddam’s family whisper that Uday might try to ease his father aside. But Saddam is not a man to go quietly. Still, he faces grave economic, military and administrative problems that make him a much reduced menace to other countries. He may never do so in Iraq, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Saddam has begun to go quietly already.

–Reported by Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem, Jamil Hamad/Amman, Barry Hillenbrand/London and Adam Zagorin/Washington

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