JERUSALEM — The defection of two high-ranking members of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime suggests that "something is rotten in the land of Iraq," according to a leading Israeli authority on that country.
Two of Hussein's sons-in-laws defected Thursday of last week to Jordan, where they were immediately granted political asylum.
One of the defectors, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, was the head of Iraq's weapons programs and was responsible for the development of Iraq's arms industry, particularly chemical and biological weapons, in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
He was considered the second most powerful man in Iraq after Hussein, and his defection spurred speculation that a campaign was under way to depose Saddam.
Because family was Hussein's "main supporting column, this means his circle of supporters is disintegrating," Amatzia Baram, a professor of Middle East history at Haifa University, told Israel Radio.
Hassan was also a key figure in Iraq's dealings with a U.N. commission charged with overseeing the dismantling of the Iraqi war machine.
His defection threw future Iraqi-U.N. dealings in doubt.
Hassan was joined by his brother, Lt. Col. Saddam Kamel Hassan, a member of Iraq's elite presidential guard.
Both men were married to Saddam Hussein's daughters and reportedly defected to Jordan with their families.
In Washington, D.C., President Clinton spoke with Jordan's King Hussein by telephone and offered military support to Jordan in the event that Iraq takes action against Jordan for granting refuge to the defectors.
Clinton reaffirmed his support for King Hussein during a news conference."King Hussein's decision, located where he is, to grant asylum to those individuals is clearly an act of real courage. And I have assured him and told him that we would stand behind Jordan," Clinton said.
The Hashemite Kingdom has experienced a turbulent relationship with Iraq in recent years. Jordan's support for Iraq during the Gulf War was widely condemned in the international community. But relations between the two nations soured when Jordan initiated its peace initiatives with Israel, resulting in a peace treaty last October.
Jordanian officials confirmed Baram's assessment that the defections underscored the inner turmoil in Hussein's regime.
Ongoing international sanctions on Iraq, in place since Baghdad invaded Kuwait in 1990, have taken a heavy toll on Iraq's economic and political stability.
Baram said the officials could also have fled because they felt Hussein no longer trusted them, which would have put their own lives in danger.
Meanwhile, Hussein's eldest son, Uday, reportedly traveled to Jordan on Thursday of last week and requested a meeting with Jordan's King Hussein, said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Karim Kabariti.
Uday was thought to be attempting to persuade the defectors to return to Iraq.