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IRAQ : A Baghdad Family Feud With International Effects

August 20, 1995|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is currently on leave from Cornell University, where he serves as director of the Near Eastern Studies Program. During the Gulf war, he served on the staff of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations

WASHINGTON — For those in the Arab world who have longed for the fall of Saddam Hussein since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, it was as close to the ideal scenario as it gets: the possible undoing of the Iraqi leader by someone in his inner circle who could preserve the Iraqi state while setting it on a new course. No one fills that bill better than Lieut. Gen. Hussein Kamel, the Iraqi leader's distant cousin, son-in-law, the man who built his military machine--and who defected to Jordan 10 days ago.

Since neither the reasons for Gen. Kamel's defection nor its immediate consequences within Iraq are yet clear, it is too early to predict the quick demise of its government. But the first serious cracks in the tight circle of power in Baghdad, coupled with Jordan's decision to welcome Kamel, another Hussein son-in-law and his two daughters, have not only altered perceptions of the Iraqi government but also have sent policy-makers, in Washington and the Middle East, back to their drawing boards.

Consider, for example, the prospects for Hussein's reign as recently as two weeks ago. The world was beginning to reconcile itself to the idea of Hussein remaining in power. Expectations were rising that international sanctions against Iraq would soon be lifted. Iraq finally provided the United Nations with information on its biological weapons and was responding to U.S. demands to improve its human rights record by releasing some political prisoners. Some Arab Gulf states were establishing diplomatic contact with Baghdad with an eye toward reconciliation.

The defections will undoubtedly slow this movement. They will enable Washington to contend that Hussein is vulnerable. New information about Iraq's military capabilities will trickle out and questions about Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions will be raised. Already, the Iraqi government has tried to preempt Kamel with some military revelations of its own, while blaming the defector for withholding information in the past.

But while the defections seem to play into existing U.S. strategy, they will also force the Administration to rethink its options. Until now, the United States has had the best of two worlds: advocating the overthrow of the Iraqi regime without having to address its consequences. U.S. policy goals notwithstanding, there is little doubt that the survival of Hussein after the Gulf war has been strategically beneficial: It assured the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and guaranteed Baghdad's isolation. It preserved Iraq as a threat to its neighbors, thus underscoring the Gulf states' need for U.S. military protection. And it left Syria with few alliance choices, thereby facilitating its drive toward peace with Israel. Such obvious benefits to Washington have fostered the suspicion in some Arab states that the United States has "secretly" conspired to keep Hussein in power.

In the past, the United States blamed an absence of opportunities for Hussein's staying power. But the defections will now increase pressure for a more aggressive U.S. policy aimed at overthrowing him. For the first time, a U.S. Administration will be compelled to consider the consequences of the reintegration of Iraq into regional politics, including those connected to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Equally consequential is Jordan's decision to grant the Iraqi defectors asylum and to televise live a news conference by Kamel, during which he called for the overthrow of Hussein. And just as Jordanian government officials were distancing themselves from Kamel's rhetoric, King Hussein boldly announced that the time for change in Baghdad has come.

King Hussein's judgment will no doubt augment the perception that the government in Baghdad is on its last leg. His fortunes will now increasingly depend on the demise of the Iraqi regime, and whether the monarch intended it or not, he will become more involved in efforts to bring it about. But he also stands to lose much if these efforts fail.

To be sure, King Hussein has endeared himself to both Israel and the United States. More important, Jordan's relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states, still strained from the king's support of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war, will markedly improve. Already, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd has invited the Jordanian leader to their first meeting in years.

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