WASHINGTON — One Wednesday last month, Uday Hussein showed up at the royal palace in Jordan, declaring his wish to deliver special greetings from his father, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, on the Prophet Mohammed's birthday.
He also wondered aloud if he might have a word with his two sisters and their husbands, who had slipped across the border into Jordan and sought asylum just the day before. One of the husbands happened to be Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Majid, who had been in charge of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and of presidential security.
But Uday's intentions did not appear to be entirely friendly. He arrived so heavily armed, diplomats said, that King Hussein first surrounded himself with bodyguards, then curtly asked Uday to leave.
The episode is vintage Uday. And it reflects why the biggest threat to Saddam Hussein's brutal reign may not be the U.S.-led military coalition that defeated his troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the U.N. trade sanctions that have strangled Iraq's economy since.
Rather, U.S. officials say, Saddam Hussein might be done in by his own highly dysfunctional family--the very prop that has kept him in power for almost a generation.
Uday Hussein has become the symbol of the problem.
Some Iraqis like to tell of his shooting rampages, from multiple murders to firing into the ceiling to announce his arrival at parties. A few have recounted tales of watching videos of torture sessions with him. Others chronicle his penchant for young Gypsy girls--for both sex and target practice.
'Out of Control'
In a bid to found a new Babylonian dynasty and a rival to the Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms, Saddam Hussein has given his son so much power--or allowed him to seize it--that Uday can no longer easily be reined in.
Diplomats in Baghdad complain of being virtually Uday's toys. Last April, the entire diplomatic corps was ordered into the desert where, without water or cover, its members were forced to spend hours watching a dance troupe.
"He's absolutely out of control," said Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at Washington's National Defense University. "His push to acquire an even bigger role has alienated and displaced other members of the family and endangered Saddam's power base." Echoed a senior U.S. official: "He's created a lot of problems for his father."
Uday, whose trademarks include silk suits and a stubble of beard, was a pivotal reason for the defection of Majid, his brother-in-law. Although Majid far outranked Uday officially and was married to the president's daughter, he decided there wasn't room for both of them in Baghdad anymore.
The depth of the family rift Majid left behind was reflected last month when the president's half brother, Barzan Ibrahim Tikriti, lashed out at Uday. Tikriti, formerly head of Iraqi intelligence and now a diplomat in Geneva, labeled Uday "greedy" and "unfit for power."
"If everyone knew their own size and ability, many problems would be avoided," he said. "The direction toward the inheritance of power in Iraq is unacceptable. Iraq is not a monarchy to be handed over to the son or brother of the king."
But ruling elites in many Arab countries are turning into dynasties. Many Middle East countries disposed of their monarchies in the 1950s and 1960s, but political princelings are again emerging.
In this group is Bashar Assad, whose father has ruled Syria for a quarter of a century and who inherited the position of heir apparent after his brother, Basil, was killed in a car accident. And in Egypt, Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, whose father has governed since 1981, have burgeoning commercial and political influence.
"The lack of democratization in the Middle East means one-man regimes are looking to families for commercial gain and political power," said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The sons are the heirs apparent even in the non-monarchical states."
Even by Mideast standards, Uday Hussein's rise is one of the great political comebacks of all time. He has long been known as arrogant and flamboyant, a womanizer who likes to hunt conquests in his red Ferrari or his bulletproof black BMW.
But his antics caught up with him after he murdered his father's favorite bodyguard and food taster in 1988. Accounts vary, but U.S. officials believe the episode was related to the bodyguard's arrangement of a liaison between the Iraqi president and Samira Shahbandar, the wife of an Iraqi Airlines executive.
Saddam Hussein eventually took her as his second wife. Although he did not divorce his first wife, some reports say it was in anger at his father's betrayal of his mother that Uday beat the bodyguard to death.
'One of World's Thugs'
"Uday is truly one of the world's thugs," a senior U.S. official said.