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Iraq: Sibling Rivalry Seen Coloring Saddam's Succession

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay are in a fierce competition over who will succeed their father. In recent years, Saddam has rapidly promoted the younger Qusay by naming him caretaker of the presidency should he be indisposed. But Uday, who controls key media outlets, refuses to be eclipsed. He is reported recently to have turned to the language of religion to send a clear public message that he would fight for power if necessary. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.

Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At first glance, a statement of religious intent by a man like Uday Hussein seems startlingly out of character.

Uday, 38, is widely regarded as the most-feared individual in Iraq and is described by defectors from Baghdad's ruling elite as a serial killer and rapist. He is also known as a sadist who, as the head of the Iraqi football federation, is famous for ordering under-performing players to kick a concrete ball around the field, if they are not jailed and beaten.

So, when news leaked from Uday's inner circle to Saudi and Kuwaiti papers last month that Uday plans to convert from Sunni to Shi'a Islam, few analysts believed the move was out of religious conviction. Instead, speculation as to Uday's motives has focused on politics and, more specifically, the long-standing contest between him and his younger brother, Qusay, over who will become Saddam's heir.

The brothers' rivalry has become heated in recent years as Saddam has promoted Qusay, 35, to progressively more powerful posts -- including naming him last year as caretaker of the presidency should Saddam be incapacitated

Over the same period, there have been almost no signs that Uday, who was badly crippled in an assassination attempt in 1996 but has since largely recovered, is being groomed for the succession. But the older brother has continued to be a powerful political force as the head of a number of Iraq's state-controlled newspapers, as well as television and radio stations.

Now, Uday appears to be seeking a broad base of popular support by announcing he will convert to Shi'a Islam, the sect to which some 60 percent of Iraqis belong. The move opens an unexpected new front in the brothers' contest because Saddam's family traditionally belongs to Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which regards the Shi'a with suspicion. The regime brutally suppressed a Shi'a revolt in southern Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and excludes Shi'a from top positions in the government and military.

Falih Abdul Jabbar, an Iraqi sociologist who is a visiting fellow at London University, told RFE/RL recently that he views Uday's statement about conversion as an effort to appear as a champion of the people. That would build on his image as a public figure compared to his more reclusive brother.

At the same time, Jabbar says that by espousing Shi'a Islam -- which historically is a revolt against established Sunni Islam -- Uday is sending a clear message that he is rebelling against his brother's promotions and will fight with arms if necessary for his rights to succeed Saddam:

"This is a symbolic declaration of civil war against his brother. This is a symbolic presentation of his own case, that he has been denied. It is his own way of saying 'I am the righteous heir of my father, not my younger brother.'"

Shi'a Islam dates back to the decades immediately following Prophet Mohammed's death when a dispute erupted over his line of succession. Shi'a Muslims revere Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, who they say was unjustly deprived of the position of spiritual leader by other rivals. Ali was later assassinated and his son Hussein -- regarded by the Shi'a as a martyr -- died while leading a revolt despite hopeless odds. The events created the schism in Islam between Sunni and Shi'a which continues today.

Jabbar says Uday's announcing he will adopt Shi'a Islam -- with its origins of refusing to accept a perceived injustice -- is a shrewd way to send a defiant message to his brother which he would not be permitted to do if he used more direct language:

"The whole thing is a political statement camouflaged or worded in, embedded in, religious idiom. The political establishment cannot tell him not to do it because that would be a very delicate [religious] issue in Iraq. They cannot oppose him even in a roundabout way on this matter. This is a very shrewd [political stroke]. He must have some good and shrewd advisers."

Uday himself yesterday (Wednesday) denied what he called Western reports he had converted to Shi'a Islam in order to win the support of the country's Shi'a population.

In comments published by his newspaper, "Babel," he said: "I will not change my sect. [The] good thing is to follow the sect of my father and my relatives, although there is nothing to disgrace the Shi'ite sect." Analysts say that if Uday did indeed announce an intention to convert, as originally reported, it would be a message of defiance in line with a series of quid-pro-quo actions he has taken in response to each promotion of his younger brother over the past year.

Qusay's promotions include rising from minister without portfolio to being appointed in 1998 as commander of the so-called Army of the Mother of All Battles, which includes half of the regular army and most of the Republican Guard units. After objections from military leaders, that appointment was subsequently modified to a vaguer position of "supervisor."

Last year, Saddam named Qusay, who also heads the president's security service, as his caretaker. Then this year, Saddam named Qusay to the ruling Baath Party's Regional Command and made him one of two deputies in charge of the party's military branch. Saddam also brought Qusay together with the regular army's leaders to try to build better ties between them.

Uday, who in addition to his media titles heads the regime's oil-smuggling operations and is one of the richest men in Iraq, has sought to match each of these promotions with initiatives of his own. Jabbar says these steps have included creating his own paramilitary organization and, last year, being elected to the National Assembly, Iraq's parliament:

"At every one of these promotions, Uday has reacted. When his brother was entrusted with reorganizing and commanding the Army of the Mother of All Battles, he made a move to create the paramilitary organization "Saddam's Martyrs." When his brother was made caretaker, he nominated himself for the assembly. Now when his brother was elected to the regional command he made this statement about converting to Shi'ism."

Uday was elected to the National Assembly but was not permitted by Saddam to take the post of speaker, which Uday is believed to have sought.

The rivalry between the two brothers officially does not exist, and the two sat side-by-side exchanging smiles at a conference of the Baath Party in May.

But their competition has raised expectations that the death of Saddam, who is 64 and officially in good health, could spark an armed conflict between them.

Analysts say that Uday's paramilitary organization has 30,000 to 35,000 well-equipped and trained fighters who could likely match the firepower of Qusay's intelligence services, so long as regular military units stayed out of the fray.