When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has political troubles with his own family, it is an indication that his murderous grip on the country may be cracking, although he is a long way from being overthrown.
Two of Saddam's daughters, along with their husbands, who had occupied major positions in Iraq's ruling circle, plus as many as 15 army officers, fled to Jordan this week and pleaded for asylum, which was granted. One of the sons-in-law is also a cousin of Saddam, typical of the tight family ties that prevail among those in power.The asylum seekers included Saddam's eldest daughter, Raghad, and her husband, Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, head of military industrialization, including weapons programs. They were accompanied by the general's brother, Col. Saddam Kamel al-Majid and the colonel's wife, Rena, another daughter of Iraq's dictator.
Such a large scale and intimate defection says a great deal about conditions inside Iraq and Saddam's para- noia regarding even those closest to him. Reports of repeated shuffling of top ministers and even abortive coups have filtered out of Iraq from time to time.
However, this does not mean that Saddam Hussein is about to be toppled. In fact, the departure of the al-Majids could be the result of a power struggle that leaves Saddam's sons and half-brothers holding more power. And they are considered hard-liners in the mold of Saddam himself.
Yet the flight of the al-Majids and their entourage also is a clear sign of difficulties in Iraq. The country is sliding into economic chaos in the face of an unrelenting oil embargo and other sanctions imposed by the United Nations after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
U.N. inspectors are still not satisfied that Iraq has been totally truthful about its pre-1990 program to produce biological weapons. The inspectors this week said there are "short- comings" in Iraq's assertion that it destroyed all 13,000 gallons of biological toxins it had produced.
Jordan's King Hussein showed considerable courage in granting asylum to the Iraqi defectors. Iraqi officials demanded their return and the king responded with a resolute "no" - not easy since militarily and economically weak Jordan is vulnerable to its aggressive neighbor.
Under the circumstances, President Clinton was right to quickly promise to protect Jordan if Iraq tries to retaliate.
Keeping up with what is happening in Iraq is mostly guesswork, but one thing is clear: While Saddam and his family cling to power, the people of Iraq will continue to suffer.