DEAD ON ARRIVAL

5 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

IN THE ANNALS OF BAD BETS, THE ONE Hussein Kamel al-Majid made last week may never be surpassed. What are the odds that someone who defects from Iraq, advocates the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and spills secrets about Saddam’s weapons program would be allowed to return to Baghdad and live a long and fruitful life? Not very good, you would think. And as Hussein Kamel learned, you would be right.

He had led Iraq’s program for developing weapons of mass destruction and had brutally suppressed the Kurds after the Gulf War. He was also married to Saddam’s favorite daughter. Then one night six months ago, he suddenly drove across the desert to Jordan, accompanied by his wife, brother and sister-in-law, who is also a daughter of Saddam’s, and the couples’ children. Last week, equally suddenly, they all went home.

On the day of his reverse defection, Hussein Kamel and his brother piled their families and flotsam pieces of luggage into a convoy of Mercedes and drove to the Jordan-Iraq border. There they were received by Saddam’s sons Qusay and Uday, a wanton killer who is Hussein Kamel’s sworn enemy. When word of the return reached the West, Madeleine Albright, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a woman who rarely finds herself at a loss for words, said simply, “I have given up trying to understand the Iraqi elite.”

Hussein Kamel, better than most, was in a position to understand how brutal his reception was likely to be. Defecting was bad enough. Once in exile, however, he denounced Saddam as a tyrant and murderer and gave the U.N. valuable information about Iraq’s weapons program. Saddam has ordered countless executions for far less serious transgressions. Hussein Kamel knew all this, but if he had any remaining uncertainty about his father-in-law’s attitude toward him, it should have been dispelled by Iraq’s state-controlled media, which branded him a thief, a coward, a spy and a “traitor dwarf.” All of which provokes the question, Why in the world did he go back?

Disappointment, unhappiness and marital strife seem to be the main reasons. When Hussein Kamel arrived in Jordan, he hoped to take command of Iraq’s exiled opposition, which might have placed him in line to succeed Saddam eventually. Soon, however, it became clear that this was not to be. Foreign officials who met him were unimpressed by his character: “Completely inflexible,” said a senior Jordanian security official, “and sick in his mind to the extent that he believes only he can be the savior of Iraq and anyone else who attempts to save Iraq is a traitor.” As for those in the Iraqi opposition, they dismissed him as a bloody agent of the repression they had fled. “He made approaches to a lot of us,” said Ahmed Chalabi, leader of an opposition group. “He wanted us to follow him and cooperate. But nobody took him seriously. We consider him a war criminal. We didn’t slam the door in his face; we just ignored him.”

The sting of those dismissals sharpened as Jordan’s King Hussein slowly turned his back on the Iraqis. When they first arrived, the King warmly embraced them, putting them up in one of his guesthouses. Later, he moved them to one of his palaces. But as the months passed a chill set in, and in October the government asked the families to vacate their opulent digs to make room for other guests. The Iraqis were moved into more modest accommodations on the way to the airport.

As their sense of isolation grew worse, Saddam’s daughters set up a campaign of their own. “They kept crying and pressuring their husbands,” says the Jordanian security official. Receiving assurances from their mother in Baghdad, the women entreated their husbands to appeal for forgiveness. The wives swore on the Koran, “If you are killed, we will commit suicide.” As the demands continued, Hussein Kamel became irritable and even violent. He fought constantly with other members of the defection party and last month was reportedly hospitalized for exhaustion.

Finally, on Feb. 17, he wrote his father-in-law requesting permission to return. It was granted last Monday, when Saddam pardoned his prodigal sons-in-law. Forty-eight hours after the entourage reached Baghdad, however, Iraqi Youth TV announced that both daughters had obtained divorces–a sign that they would not, despite their promises, be sharing their husbands’ fate. One day later, the Iraqi News Agency said the brothers, their father and a younger sibling had been killed in a gun battle when angry clansmen stormed the family residence, declaring that their “blood should be shed because of their treason to the homeland.”

Several weeks earlier, Hussein Kamel told visitors he did not want to die in exile. He got his wish.

–Reported by Dean Fischer/Washington, Jamil Hamad/Amman and Scott MacLeod/Paris

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