Saddam’s son targeted in attempted assassination

Tim Cornwell Deputy Foreign Editor

SADDAM Hussein’s younger son and likely successor was the target of an assassination attempt inside the presidential palace in Baghdad, an Iraqi opposition leader claimed yesterday.

Two officers in Iraq’s special security intelligence unit tried - and failed - to kill the Iraqi leader’s younger son Qusay last month, according to Hamid al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Major Kamel Abbas Hadidi and Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein al-Dowri were executed on October 19 after their plan failed, he claimed. While Mr Bayati lives in London, his group is based in, and backed by Iran.

A degree of mystery surrounded the story yesterday. Other opposition groups claimed it was highly exaggerated. But if nothing else the story was a mark of Qusay’s rising prominence in a family that is no stranger to assassination attempts.

The two men, according to Mr Bayati, "wanted to crash their car into his to stop the car and then shoot him afterwards but [Qusay] noticed they were speeding up and he changed direction. They were caught and executed."

Mr Bayati said SCIRI, a Shi’ite Muslim group that has close ties to the Islamic leaders of Iran, had learned of the assassination attempt through its "very good sources" in Iraq.

But one reputable Iraqi opposition group, which asked not to be named, said Mr Bayati was an unreliable source and the story was only "20 per cent true".

Instead a new officer at the palace, they said, had moved his car at the same time as Qusay’s - violating strict security rules that no other vehicle could be in motion when Qusay’s car was moving. He was immediately arrested and questioned - but not executed.

The Iraqi newspaper Babil, which is owned by Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, yesterday published a news agency report of the execution and assassination attempt under a headline of a question mark and two exclamation points.

Saddam has steadily promoted Qusay within the ranks of the Iraqi military and ruling Baath party. He heads the army’s élite Republican Guard.

His rise is often dated back to 1996, when Uday was badly injured in an apparent assassination attempt, left with wounds that are being treated to this day.

Sources describe it as an revenge attack on Uday by a member of the Iraqi army whose daughter he had raped.

Uday was left with more than a dozen wounds in his legs and groin - the clear mark of an attempted punishment shooting.

For years Saddam Hussein, entering his mid-60s after two decades in power, with frequent rumours that he is weakening or suffering from cancer, appeared to be grooming Uday to succeed him. Saddam himself is the survivor of numerous attempts on his life.

However, the attack on Uday capped years of stories of the son’s violent and unpredictable behaviour, with opposition groups calling him a serial killer and rapist.

Qusay’s recent promotions seem to have made him the clear candidate to follow his father’s long rule, as did Jordan’s King Abdullah, or Syria’s Bashar Assad. But he must deal with the dangerous ambitions of not just his elder brother but other rivals in the Iraqi intelligence agencies or the Baath Party.

To those reading the tea-leaves in the official pronouncements from Baghdad, Qusay’s rise has been a surprise but now looks unstoppable.

Married to the daughter of a general, with three sons, he was formerly a little known figure. He had little of his older brother’s flamboyance - but was equally less of a liability, and has kept his father’s reputation for ruthlessness.

This year his appointment to one position after another in the Baath hierarchy has confirmed him as his father’s number two. This summer, it is reported, he was voted on to the party’s regional command in Baghdad, with no mention of a place for Uday.

He also joined Iraq’s powerful Revolution Command Council, and became deputy to his father in the party’s military bureau. Along with the Republican Guard, he controls the Special Security Organisation that protects his father.

Last month, speculation mounted that Qusay’s influence had extended to control of the Iraqi foreign ministry.

Uday, three years older at 38, remains a powerful media magnate in Iraqi terms, as owner of a television and radio station and eleven newspapers.

While they mostly hue to the party line, they include Babil, regarded as the most influential in Iraq.

However, Uday is said to risk losing control of his paramilitary force, known as Saddam’s Commandos.

Additional reporting by Reuters