Saddam Hussein has instructed his security officials to kill Iraqi opposition leaders based in Britain to prevent them from forming an alternative government in the event of an Allied military attack to remove his regime, The Telegraph can reveal.
According to highly classified information received by British and American intelligence officials in the past week, Saddam has issued a presidential decree authorising the murder of leading members of the Iraqi opposition "by any means necessary".
He is also said to have approached the Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi - who is known to have a network of "sleeper" agents based in Britain and Europe - to help him to target Iraqi dissidents.
Details of the decree, which was transmitted from Saddam's presidential palace compound in Baghdad to Iraqi security officials in Europe and the Middle East last week, have been intercepted by British officials at the GCHQ listening complex in Cheltenham. Saddam's instructions have also been picked up by CIA spy satellites and by agents in the Middle East.
British intelligence officials have now told Scotland Yard's Special Branch to improve security for leaders of the main Iraqi opposition groups, most of which are based in London.
The headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in Kensington is already heavily protected by bombproof doors and windows. Last week, Special Branch detectives were taking steps to improve protection for families of opposition leaders.
"We've been informed by the British authorities that there's an increased threat from Saddam," Zaab Sethna, the INC's London spokesman, said last night. "We are taking the appropriate steps to improve security."
Iraqi opposition groups are currently engaged in detailed negotiations over what form a new government will take should Saddam be overthrown. A conference of all the Iraqi groups is planned for Brussels later this month.
Iraqi terror cells were last active in Britain during the late 1970s and early 1980s when they staged several assassination attempts in London - some of them successful - against Iraqi dissidents and Israelis. Although they have not been active recently, British security officials believe that Saddam has a number of sleeper cells based in Britain and Europe that could be swiftly activated.
Details of Saddam's presidential decree authorising the assassination of Iraqi opposition leaders were confirmed by Middle East diplomats working closely with United States intelligence. "We regard this as a sign of Saddam's desperation," said one official. "He knows Washington is serious about removing him."
Although Saddam is trying to give the impression that he is ready to comply with the terms of United Nations resolutions imposed at the end of the Gulf war to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, Western intelligence has identified indications that he is preparing to make a desperate last stand to save his regime.
In the past few months, senior members of his Ba'athist regime have visited a number of Arab countries to lobby for support. Intelligence officials were particularly interested in a recent visit to Libya by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is wanted for war crimes over his role in using chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988. "Chemical Ali", as he is known in Baghdad, spent several hours with Col Gaddafi.
Apart from asking for assistance with killing opposition figures, al-Majid is also believed to have asked for Libyan help in carrying out terrorist attacks against British and US targets in Europe and the Middle East. Saddam is also keen to target the Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar, which are the main bases for US forces in the region. The Libyan leader's response to the requests is not known.
Intelligence officials have also noted increased activity in the Iraqi air force, with pilots practising complicated manoeuvres in air space outside the Anglo-US-patrolled air exclusion zones. One possibility being examined by intelligence experts is that they may be preparing to conduct "suicide" bombing missions against neighbouring countries in the event of an allied attack.