THE desperate attempt by the Iraqi hijackers to reach sanctuary with their families far from Saddam Hussein's killer squads reflects the climate of fear that pervades the monstrous court of the tyrant of Baghdad, where a misplaced glance, an unfortunate word, can lead to torture and death.

Even to have been abroad on the nation's business is sometimes sufficient reason to excite suspicion of having been corrupted and to warrant execution.

The circumstances which led to the hijacking are still unclear. It may be that the hijackers had been summoned home or that the Sudanese government - not noted for its devotion to human rights - were sending them home at Saddam's request.

What is clear, however, is that they were sufficiently frightened to carry out one of the most serious of international crimes.

They did not dare go to Amman, the Airbus's destination, for Jordan, despite King Hussein's current breach with Saddam, is swarming with Iraqi agents and it would be a simple matter for them to be murdered or blackmailed into returning home.

The fate of Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law, Hussein Kamel Hassan and Saddam Kamel Hassan, who defected to Amman with their wives only to be induced to return to Baghdad where they were murdered, is not likely to be forgotten by any other Iraqi official wishing to defect.

It is the same throughout the Middle East. Iraqi - and Iranian - hit teams are established in virtually every Arab country.

Their task is a reprise of the old KGB role: to kill anyone who defects. Former officials who join dissident movements are subject to special attention.

The assassination squads are members of the Estikhbarat - Military Intelligence - who are given diplomatic immunity as members of Iraqi embassies, usually in the military attache's office.

They also involve students, airline officials, and businessmen in their foreign operations. These amateurs are recruited either by loyalty to the regime or by threats against their families in Iraq. Some students have been forced to take part by being threatened with having their grants cut off.

Weapons and explosives for Estikhbarat operations are smuggled into embassies by the diplomatic bag, and embassy communications are used to control operations. It was an Estikhbarat cell in the Iraqi embassy which set up the assault on the Iranian embassy in 1980, leading to the siege which revealed the Special Air Service's anti-terrorist role.

It was also the Estikhbarat which master-minded the assassination of General Abdul al-Naif, a former Prime Minister of Iraq, outside the Inter-Continental Hotel in London in 1978.

This was their second attempt to murder al-Naif. In their first, three gunmen riddled the door of his London flat with bullets, wounding his wife but missing him. He said afterwards: ``They will try again and they will fail again.'' The second time they did not miss.

Britain may not be as safe as the hijackers think. In fact, the Estikhbarat operates all over the world.

They have carried out attacks on Iraqi dissidents in Germany. They have harassed the Iraqi community in Moscow. They set up a terrorist headquarters in Sweden.

They carried out a series of minor international arson and bomb attacks during the Gulf War - although Saddam's threat to set the world alight never materialised. They have killed in Cairo, Kuwait, Amman, and Beirut.

Iraqi diplomats have been expelled from Holland, Greece, Belgium, Thailand, France, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Spain, Abu Dhabi, Australia, and the UK.

For the sake of expedience, the killings are usually carried out by shooting but Saddam prefers to have his victims die in the cruellest way possible, in order to satisfy his own lust for revenge and to discourage any others who might be thinking of defecting. In these cases, the weapon of choice is the rat poison thalium.

The killers threaten one of their victim's friends into inviting him to a meal, during which they try to get him to agree to return to Iraq. If he refuses, they sprinkle the poison over his food. Thalium is tasteless and odourless, and he knows nothing about it until he starts to die in agony hours later.

This is what happened to Abdullah Rahim Sharif Ali in 1988 at a meal in a Kensington restaurant. At that time, Amnesty International said the Iraqi secret service had used thalium to kill 40 dissidents around the world in the previous four months.

Britain's security forces are, of course, well aware of the activities of the Estikhbarat and keep a very close eye on Saddam's men here. The Iraqi embassy was closed down at the time of the Gulf War and only three diplomats remain in the Iraqi interests section of the Jordanian embassy.

One of these, Khamis Khalaf al-Ajili, was expelled last year for ``activities incompatible with his diplomatic status''.

It may well be that the hijackers consider Britain still the safest place to be.

However, it remains to be seen if their gamble has succeeded. They have put the Government deep into a moral maze.

Will they be given political asylum and their hijacking condoned? Or will they be charged with hijacking, with the possibility of being deported to Iraq and certain death? And what will happen to their families?