THE MOTORCADE SLIPPED OUT OF the Iraqi capital of Baghdad before dawn on Aug. 8 and headed west across the Syrian desert toward Jordan. Nothing seemed unusual except perhaps the size of the caravan—10 Mercedes sedans, GM pickups and military vehicles headed for an international flight departing from Amman, Jordan. But when the group rolled across the border at the frontier post of Trebeil, it became apparent that this was no ordinary drive to the airport. One of the travelers phoned Jordan's King Hussein with an urgent request. Within two hours of meeting them, the king granted the group political asylum.

It was a searing insult to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The dusty convoy carried members of the dictator's immediate family, including his two oldest daughters, Raghad, 27, and Rana, 24, and several of his grandchildren, as well as two of his most trusted henchmen: his sons-in-law Hussein Kamel Hassan al-Majid, 41, a former minister of defense, and army colonel Saddam Kamel, 36. And when the refugees arrived in Jordan, they had mutiny on their minds. "We will work inside Iraq and the whole Arab world to topple the regime of Saddam," Hussein Kamel declared on Aug. 12.

The episode was another chapter in a family saga that could be titled Dallas on the Euphrates. Saddam Hussein has ruled Iraq for 27 years through a tight family circle including his half brothers, sons and in-laws. Rivalries within the ruling clan have resulted in rancorous quarrels and even assassinations. The dictator managed to survive Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has so far headed off potential palace coups, but the pressure on him is apparently growing. "I think it might have been a family crisis," Jordan's King Hussein told an Israeli journalist, but Hussein Kamel wants "to send a message to Iraq...[it's] time for change."

For Saddam Hussein, that message must have been painful. Hussein Kamel had been both his heir apparent and confidant. A cousin from the dictator's hometown of Tikrit, he was a policeman with little education when he first won Saddam Hussein's attention in 1968. After he reportedly saved the president's life in 1982, he was chosen to marry first daughter Raghad. Their first son, Ali, was born in 1983.

For the next decade Hussein Kamel served as Saddam Hussein's loyal lieutenant, building Iraq's military might and helping stash millions—perhaps billions—of dollars in oil money in Swiss banks. Such trust, to say nothing of the profits it brought, caused friction between Hussein Kamel and Saddam's two sons, Uday, 31, and Qusai, 28. In 1992 the feud became public when Uday and Hussein Kamel got into a fistfight at an official ceremony.

Uday had long fought his own battle with his father, reportedly because Saddam Hussein cheated on his first wife, Sajida, Uday's mother. In 1988, Uday is said to have clubbed to death Saddam's valet and food taster because he was helping the dictator arrange trysts with a married Iraqi Airways flight attendant, Samira Shahbandar. Later, after her husband, Nurredin al-afi, stepped aside—he was appointed director of the airline for his troubles—Saddam married Samira without divorcing Sajida. (He's now rumored to have a third wife as well.) For a while, Saddam threatened Uday with execution but finally relented and banished him to Switzerland. In 1990 he was expelled from that country for repeated drunken brawling.

In the years since, Uday has slowly won back his father's trust. He has assumed several government duties once belonging to his brother-in-law Hussein Kamel, including the lucrative job of smuggling Iraqi oil to Turkey and Iran in defiance of U.N. trade sanctions. That sinecure may bring in as much as $2 million a day.

By last March, Uday had accumulated enough power to help block Hussein Kamel's bid to become vice-chairman of Saddam Hussein's political party. The implications of that loss were sinister, says a former Jordanian diplomat. "It meant Hussein Kamel might not be able to succeed Saddam Hussein. It also held out the danger of being eliminated."

Hussein Kamel still faces that danger—even more so now that he has led the party of defectors to Jordan. But with characteristic arrogance, he told reporters in Jordan last week that he wasn't worried. "Even before we left we knew there would be attempts," he said. "Such attempts will be futile."

PATRICK ROGERS
P.V. VIVEKANAND in Amman, SANDRA McELWAINE in Washington, LYDIA DENWORTH in London and ABRAHAM RABINOVICH in Jerusalem

  • Contributors:
  • P.V. Vivekanand,
  • Sandra McElwaine,
  • Lydia Denworth,
  • Abraham Rabinovich.