AMMAN, Jordan – One evening last week, a group of Iraqi men sat smoking cigarettes in a living room in Amman, discussing what appears to be the imminent end of the regime of Saddam Hussein. What was remarkable about the gathering was the presence of one of Hussein’s close friends.

Paul Wong
Iranian soldiers carry the coffins of 88 Iraninan army soldiers who were killed in the Iraq-Iran 1980-1988 war near a painting of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at Fakka border, 450 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, last Tuesday. Iraq and Iran ex

Hussein does not know it yet, but his friend has defected.

“He was scared to death,” said an Iraqi who was at the meeting and gave his name only as Ahmed. “He expects people would drag him through the streets (if Hussein’s regime fell). He knows people have a real grudge against him.”

The reported defection of the man – described by Iraqis here as an official involved in the public relations side of the Hussein regime – is a sign of growing anxiety in Iraq among Hussein loyalists who are realizing that they are likely to be targeted by the long-resentful populace should Hussein fall.

All over Iraq, say Iraqi exiles in Jordan, there are indications that both elements of the regime and ordinary people feel that the end is nigh for Hussein. Intelligence agents have received threatening letters, anti-Hussein graffiti has appeared with increasing regularity, Hussein has ordered executions of those he suspects of disloyalty, and more men like Hussein’s friend are looking for a way out.

“If it was easy to leave, many people would do it,” Ahmed said. “But Saddam makes it almost impossible by refusing to allow their families to leave with them. This person I met this week left on his own. Very few people would do that.”

The accounts of what is going on in Iraq came from several Iraqis in Amman who are unfriendly to the Hussein regime. But they are in constant contact with friends and relatives inside the country, some of whom are officials in the regime. It is common for Iraqi extended families to include both quiet dissenters and officials of the government or of Hussein’s ruling Baath Party.

All those who were interviewed last week insisted that their names not be published because of danger to themselves or relatives from Hussein’s secret police agents, both here and in Iraq.

In Iraq, foreign reporters can rarely hear dissenting voices because the government forces them to use official minders as translators. But those interviewed here say dissent is growing in the shadows.

The organs of Hussein’s control reportedly are taking steps to protect themselves from the kind of rebellion that followed the U.S.-led attack in 1991. Then, in southern Iraq, people overthrew local Baath Party officials and killed many before Hussein’s forces crushed the uprising.

Millions of Iraqis work for or have collaborated with the regime, and Jordanian analysts and Iraqis in Jordan say that should the Hussein regime fall, there will likely be a bloody repeat of the revenge killings seen in 1991 – but on a nationwide scale.

“Every Baathist in the eyes of a non-Baathist is going to be a target,” said a former senior Jordanian government official. “This is why it’s going to be a bloody situation.”

In the past few weeks, said Ahmed, who participated in the 1991 rebellion, the Baath Party has been distributing weapons to members. “Before the member gets a gun he must take an oath of loyalty to Saddam,” Ahmed said. “These are weapons not to resist planes but people.”

Hussein also has been moving families of his air force pilots to their air bases as a way of making sure that the pilots do not change sides and bomb the bases, the Iraqis said.

The government appears to have reason to worry.

“Last week a lot of threatening letters were sent to officers of the intelligence service and the military,” Ahmed said. One of his relatives, a senior intelligence officer, received a letter, he said.

“It came to his house,” he said. “This officer found it under his door. It said, ‘The time of reckoning is almost here and we will soon settle our scores.’ ”

An Iraqi official close to Hussein received a different form of message this month, Iraqis in Amman said. The official’s German shepherd was found dead, shot in the head – and the threat was underscored by the fact that the dog was killed near the official’s home in an elite neighborhood of Baghdad that is usually very secure for the many officials who live there.

Reports of warnings to the regime have come from other parts of Baghdad and the country. In one neighborhood of the capital, residents reported to relatives here in Amman that people have been writing graffiti on the walls. “Leave the country,” the messages read. “Let us live.”

This kind of graffiti has appeared before in Iraq but it is becoming more common, Iraqis said. Two weeks ago, in one neighborhood, someone defaced a portrait of Hussein.

“The authorities went into the area and searched houses and anyone who owned crayons or paints was taken in,” one Iraqi said.

In most streets in Iraq, one or two houses are home to Baath Party officials, whose job it is to keep an eye on their neighbors. Iraqi exiles hear from their friends and relatives that it is becoming common to hear gunfire in the night-and in the morning to hear whispers that the local Baathist has been killed or has disappeared.

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