The defection of senior Iraqi officials to Jordan this week could well be the critical show of weakness in dictator Saddam Hussein's regime that U.S. officials have prayed for and plotted since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
When he led a convoy of armored sedans across the Iraqi desert and into Jordan on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Majid, the architect of Iraq's military machine, revived the dream of shattering the Baghdad regime's core and creating an alternative strongman for Iraq, analysts said.
"This is disaffection in the inner circle. It is the most interesting wrinkle we have seen," said Richard Haass, who served as then-President George Bush's adviser on Middle East affairs on the National Security Council during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. "It is all good news, even though it has taken four or five years longer than we had hoped."
By Friday, U.S. intelligence officers reportedly had made contact in Jordan with Majid and his brother, Lt. Col. Saddam Kamel Majid. Saddam Majid commanded the Iraqi dictator's presidential guard. The brothers are married to Raghad and Rana, two of Saddam Hussein's daughters; the women followed their husbands into exile.
Iraqi opposition leaders said Hussein Majid was already telephoning members of the opposition in the region and offering to build a coalition to overthrow his father-in-law.
Hussein Majid is expected to be a gold mine of information about Iraq's weapons systems, because he was the key procurer of arms and technology for the regime as it built up its war machine in the 1980s. He is thought to know more than almost anyone else in Iraq about the regime's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missile programs.
At the same time, some analysts believe he also is the first Iraqi to join the opposition who might be capable of replacing Saddam Hussein.
"He has less blood on his hands than other members of this family," said Amatzia Baram, chairman of the Middle East history department at Israel's Haifa University and a specialist on the Iraqi regime. "He is certainly not a democratic creature, but he would be better than anyone else in that family, from the perspective of the Americans."
Even as it crushed Saddam Hussein's army in Kuwait in February, 1991, the Bush Administration was casting about for likely replacements for the Iraqi dictator. The Administration was always bedeviled by obstacles: Hussein's seemingly impregnable personal security forces, his grip of terror on much of Iraq, the disarray of the Iraqi opposition and the likelihood that the collapse of his regime could lead to the breakup of ethnically and religiously riven Iraq.
Bush Administration officials always hoped that someone from within the regime--someone, like Hussein, from the minority Sunni Muslim community in Iraq--would strike down the dictator and seize power. Such a person, it was thought, could halt the worst excesses of Hussein's regime, repair Iraq's tattered relations with the world and still hold the nation together.
Shortly after Hussein Majid's defection was revealed Thursday, President Clinton publicly praised Jordan's King Hussein for granting asylum to him and his entourage--said to number as many as 30 officers, aides, wives and children.
Clinton warned Saddam Hussein against making threatening moves toward Jordan and said the United States is ready to come to its defense.
Even as Clinton was offering his support, King Hussein was turning down a request from the Iraqi dictator, delivered by his eldest son, Uday, to return the defectors or at least their wives. Jordanian officials said the king received Uday for just 10 minutes at the palace in what was described as a polite but tense session Thursday afternoon.
On Friday, Saddam Hussein sent the king, his onetime ally, traditional greetings on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne. But the Iraqi leader also denounced Hussein Majid, a distant cousin and a longtime confidant.
Western diplomats in Jordan said King Hussein was aware of the risks when he decided to grant asylum to the defectors. Iraq's army is still large, and it is close to the tiny kingdom. And Saddam Hussein has not flinched at resorting to political assassination in the past. "But this was just too big a fish for the king, or for us, to pass up," one U.S. diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"What were the king's alternatives, once Hussein [Majid] arrived?" Baram said. "To give him back was unthinkable. On the other hand, there is a chance to score very good points with the Americans, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis."
After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August, 1990, the king chose to express sympathy for the Iraqi leader. He paid dearly for that support, losing financial aid from the Gulf states and suffering a rupture in relations with the United States and Egypt.
After the war, the king began mending fences and eagerly entered U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. He was largely rehabilitated with the U.S. Congress when he signed a peace treaty with Israel in October.
But the king's relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, once his biggest financial backers, remain frosty, and the king has been disappointed by the lack of U.S. aid offered after he signed the peace treaty with Israel.
"The king has made a calculation here that Saddam is on his way out," a Western diplomat in Amman, the Jordanian capital, said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He has decided to seize this opportunity."