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Hussein ‘Still Calling Shots,’ Bush Observes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Bush dismissed the reshuffling of top Iraqi government officials Saturday as unlikely to produce major reforms or alter U.S. policy in the region, observing that “Saddam Hussein appears to still be calling the shots.”

“There are some interesting Cabinet shifts, but nothing that appears to depart from support for Saddam Hussein’s policies,” Bush said on his return to Washington from weekend talks with Turkish President Turgut Ozal at Camp David.

“As I’ve said before, normal relations with the United States cannot be effected with Saddam Hussein still calling the shots, still in power,” he added.

The President said the United States has no intention of trying to influence the outcome of the rebellions being waged against Hussein’s regime by Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq and non-Arab Kurds in the north.

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He said it would be “inappropriate” for Washington to suggest a successor to Hussein or attempt to dictate the kind of government that would emerge if he were overthrown.

“I would hope there would be one that could work very compatibly with the Western powers and live happily ever after without threatening any of its neighbors,” Bush said at a joint press conference with the Turkish leader.

“What we’re looking for is stability. We’re not looking for disorder,” he said. “We’re looking for someone who is going to lead that country in ways of peace and to take the enormous resources they have, pay off their obligations to others, then raise the standard of living for their own people. They’ve been in a war situation for too many years already.”

Bush said the Iraqi government’s claims that it has suppressed the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq were untrue, although he provided no details. “The rebels are still fighting hard,” he said.

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Pressed on reports that Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, has intervened to aid its Iraqi brethren, the President said, “I’m not sure I do understand what Iran’s role is in the south.” He said the Administration had not queried Tehran directly on the subject.

He did, however, call on all countries in the region to hold back. “I think it would be better if everyone stayed out and let the Iraqi people decide what they want to do. I think that would be much the best approach. That’s what we plan to do,” Bush said.

A U.S. official specializing in Iraq said that the government reshuffling appears to be a groping attempt by Hussein to retain power by giving more visibility to both Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

Sadoun Hammadi, a Shiite, was appointed prime minister, and three Kurds were appointed to the Cabinet, according to a brief announcement by Baghdad Radio.

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“He’s obviously trying to bring in the Shia, but it’s too late,” said the specialist, who requested anonymity. “He’s thrashing around and trying to give a good face to it. I doubt anyone will be fooled by it. The same names are there.”

The specialist said that no government reorganization would be significant unless matched by reforms, adding: “Nothing I see indicates it’s anything more than window dressing. I don’t see this as any signal that he’s switching to anything democratic.”

The new faces notwithstanding, Hussein’s government is still dominated by political cronies who reflect his own Sunni Muslim power base. Even Hammadi is a long-time member of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party.

“He understands that he has to keep those who supported him behind him, and that means the middle class and the Sunni. He’s got a core group there that he has to keep happy, including the military, to have any chance of survival,” said the U.S. specialist.

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The appointment of Hammadi to the premiership is seen as the most significant aspect of the restructuring by U.S. officials and private analysts. The Iraqi leader may believe he can still win the support of significant portions of Iraq’s Shiite majority, they said.

Containing the Kurdish rebellion, in contrast, is considered a lost cause for the time being because of the tight restrictions--including a ban on use of military aircraft--imposed by the U.S.-led coalition.

During the last serious internal uprising in 1988, Baghdad airlifted troops and used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians, killing up to 5,000. Hussein’s attitude toward the longstanding Kurdish problem was reflected in the ouster of a ranking Kurd as vice president.

In the past, Hammadi was considered an advocate of reform and improved relations with regional rivals, including Iran.

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“Of all the Baathists, he is among the most moderate,” said the specialist. “He’s also considered an intellectual. He looks like the new face in the regime. He’s Shia and educated. He may put a better face on the regime in domestic terms. The middle class might look at the regime more favorably. But (the reshuffling) means nothing to outside world.”

Despite the reorganization, Hussein is still considered by U.S. officials to be the only government figure capable of instituting real reforms, something he is considered highly unlikely to do.


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