President Saddam Hussein moved Wednesday to rejuvenate his military high command for the second time in two months, naming a new defense minister to replace the aging general in that post.
The new defense minister, Lt. Gen. Saadi Tuma Jubouri, was a hero of his country’s 1980-88 war with Iran. As a key division commander, he was known for throwing men into battle regardless of casualties, Iraqi veterans say.
The appointment comes less than five weeks before a U.N.-imposed deadline for Iraq to get out of Kuwait, the small neighboring sheikdom that Hussein’s forces invaded Aug. 2. After that deadline, the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizes the use of force by U.S.-led multinational troops to liberate Kuwait.
Jubouri, believed to be in his late 40s, replaces the 70-year-old Gen. Abdul-Jabar Shanshal, who was named defense minister in May, 1989, when his predecessor was killed in a helicopter crash.
At the time, Shanshal was considered an interim replacement. Hussein noted in a letter to Shanshal on Wednesday that it was always understood that because of his age and health, he would not be asked to serve more than two years.
The text of the letter, broadcast on Baghdad Radio, said the aging general is being returned to his previous post of minister of state for military affairs, a position that reportedly carries no influence.
According to some reports, Lt. Gen. Jubouri, the new defense minister, devised the formidable defensive lines that protected the southern Iraqi city of Basra against repeated “human wave” assaults by Iranian troops during the war. He also commanded Iraqi forces in heavy fighting on the southern front.
In mid-October, Hussein fired his military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khazraji, replacing him with another war hero, Lt. Gen. Hussein Rashid, in a shift that was never explained.
Some analysts said the latest top-level shift indicates the Iraqi strongman’s renewed readiness and willingness to go to war as the U.N. deadline nears. The most recent signals to emanate from Baghdad were more conciliatory, as Hussein over the last few days released the last of the hundreds of Western hostages who wanted to leave Iraq and Kuwait.
Adding to the sense of urgency here is nightly civil defense instruction on Iraqi television, along with the continued call-up of soldiers for the front, teen-agers and 40-year-olds included.
Meanwhile, with plans to open talks with the United States stalled, Iraq is trying to open a second diplomatic front--this one with the Arab world--to break out of its global isolation.
On Wednesday, Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid arrived in Baghdad on a barnstorming mission to arrange a meeting between Hussein and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. There is no indication that Fahd is willing to meet the Iraqi president.
“Iraq thinks a meeting with King Fahd would be more important than one with Bush,” one observer here said. “If Fahd agrees to something, the United States would have to follow along.”
There was no official word on the progress of the Hussein-Bendjedid talks.
Bendjedid is expected to visit Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied troops are stationed, and Iran after his meetings in Baghdad.
Iraqi officials say they are unhappy not only with Washington’s unwillingness to agree to a mid-January date for a meeting between President Hussein and Secretary of State James A. Baker III but also with the U.S. insistence that talks focus only on the demand that Iraq withdraw unconditionally from Kuwait.
Instead, Iraq wants what it calls a “deep” discussion of Middle East problems, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Washington set a date of Dec. 17 for a meeting between Iraq’s Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz and President Bush. Iraq wants the Baker-Hussein meeting to take place Jan. 12, a date viewed by Washington as too late.
Some of Iraq’s Arab allies, notably Jordan, have fueled speculation that Iraq might agree to leave Kuwait. In a speech Sunday, Jordan’s King Hussein laid out a formula for withdrawal: Iraq would begin to leave on “implementation of Security Council resolutions,” and a peace conference on the Middle East would begin.
But the Iraqi Foreign Ministry dismissed the formula.
“We excuse the king. Jordan is suffering consequences for its stand and is under pressure,” said a Foreign Ministry official, referring to economic problems brought on by the international economic blockade of Iraq, which has cost Jordan dearly in trade.
Nonetheless, some observers both here and in Amman, the Jordanian capital, continue to insist that a compromise is in the works.