In his first public appearance since fleeing Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and former right-hand man condemned his longtime chief for bringing misery to the Iraqi people and announced a campaign to topple him.
The threat from Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, a former defense minister, could be the most serious challenge to Saddam’s rule since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Al-Majid masterminded Iraq’s secret nuclear armament programs in the 1980s and built up the army’s elite Republican Guard units, which spearheaded Iraq’s 1980-88 war against Iran.
He said he left Iraq because Saddam was more interested in defying the outside world than bringing about an end to the economic embargo imposed by the United Nations after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The sanctions have led to severe shortages of food, medicine and other supplies in Iraq, although the elite, al-Majid said, were not affected.
“We were not being harmed … in the leadership,” he said. “But the people are suffering.”
He said he made his criticism plain to other members of Saddam’s inner circle in recent months, “but unfortunately no correction was made.”
Therefore, “we’ll work to overthrow the existing regime … through political and through military means,” he told a news conference at King Hussein’s al-Qasr Al-Sagheer palace.
Meanwhile, a British newspaper reported Sunday that two Iraqi agents disguised as journalists were thwarted from killing al-Majid and possibly his brother, Col. Saddam Kamel al-Majid, at the news conference.
Jordanian intelligence officers overpowered and disarmed the agents hours before the lieutenant general addressed reporters in Amman, The Mail on Sunday newspaper said. It quoted unidentified senior Jordanian intelligence sources.
The al-Majids traveled from Iraq to Jordan in a convoy with their wives, Raghad and Rana, both daughters of Saddam. The colonel did not speak at the news conference.
In Washington, a White House official said al-Majid’s news conference “underscores the extent of Saddam’s isolation.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said “his insider’s account of the situation in Iraq shows clearly who is responsible for the suffering there.”
Asserting that Saddam had deployed Republican Guard soldiers on every street in Baghdad, al-Majid called on “all officers in the Iraqi army in the Republican Guard … and all government officials, to be prepared for the coming change, which will turn Iraq into something modern.”
Iraqi officers “know what this call means,” he said.
Al-Majid said he had established contacts to carry out his plans with officials inside Iraq and with foreign governments, but said there was no dialogue with Washington yet.
“We will establish new and developed relations with the world and get rid of what is shameful and what caused the backwardness of the society,” he said.
The White House official would not comment on whether U.S. or U.N. representatives have talked to al-Majid.
The news conference was alMajid’s first public appearance in years out of a military uniform - he wore a dark Western suit, white shirt and tie.
Speaking in measured tones, he said his group, which included the two couples’ children, a cousin and 15 army officers, passed the border unimpeded. “I am a known personality and I don’t think that a checkpoint of a few soldiers would dare to stop me.”
Al-Majid said he was “astonished” by Saddam’s accusations that he had embezzled millions of dollars before leaving, and warned he might retaliate to continued charges by revealing some “extremely serious and dangerous” secrets about the Iraqi leader.
Saddam on Friday accused al-Majid of “betrayal” and “stealing millions of dollars” of the Iraqi people’s money. He indicated he would continue to press for the return of the defectors.
On Saturday, Iraq’s state-run newspapers vilified al-Majid, calling him a “traitor dwarf” who sold out to foreign powers.
King Hussein has granted asylum to al-Majid and his brother, who was head of the special security forces guarding the regime.
The group has been given refuge at a fortified farm in Naour, a small town 18 miles southwest of Amman.
Al-Majid said Saddam’s intelligence agents had attempted to enter Jordan in order to assassinate him. He did not elaborate, but called the attempts “futile.”
He also predicted a blood bath in the wake of his defection.
“It is natural that a lot of people, not within the ruling family, will be randomly apprehended,” he said. “Also, there are going to be executions.”
President Clinton said last week that the United States would protect Jordan if Iraq retaliated.