Hussein names Shiite Muslim prime minister Shuffling of Iraqi Cabinet comes amid insurgencies

March 24, 1991|By Youssef M. Ibrahim | Youssef M. Ibrahim,New York Times News Service

MANAMA, Bahrain -- President Saddam Hussein shuffled his Cabinet yesterday as he struggled to contain insurgencies in northern and southern Iraq.

There was no indication that the Cabinet changes would alter his hold on power, and, in Washington, President Bush said they were insignificant. But the moves do elevate the only Shiite Muslim in a senior position in the government. Some Arab officials here said the move could be meant as a gesture to the country's restive Shiite majority.

The changes came amid reports of rebel gains in the north, where Kurdish guerrillas were said to be advancing into areas with Arab majorities, including the region's largest city, Mosul.

In a further blow to Baghdad, the Iranian government confirmed yesterday that it would confiscate the Iraqi military planes that took refuge in Iran during the Persian Gulf war, saying that the planes would be partial compensation for damage suffered by Iran during its war with Iraq from 1980 through 1988.

Iran had originally said that the planes, estimated to number more than 150, would be impounded until the end of hostilities, then returned.

The announcement regarding the planes appeared to make relatively little difference to Baghdad's efforts to contain two rebellions, since the U.S.-led allies have forbidden flights by Iraqi fixed-wing aircraft and backed up the ban by shooting down two violators in the last four days.

But the development underlined a rapid deterioration of Iraqi-Iranian relations. Tehran followed a neutral course during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait but is widely believed to be supporting the Shiite insurgency that sprang up in southern Iraq after Baghdad's defeat in the war.

Baghdad radio said that the new government would be headed by Saadoun Hammadi, who had been deputy prime minister. Mr. Hammadi, a Shiite Muslim, will have the title of prime minister, a post left vacant in the past and assumed to belong to Mr. Hussein, who is also head of the Revolutionary Command Council.

Tariq Aziz, who had been foreign minister, was named to one of two deputy prime minister posts. Interior Minister Ali Hasan al-Majid retained his present post.

The three men are central figures of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party and are viewed as among the closest aides to Mr. Hussein.

Mr. al-Majid was the governor of Kuwait during the Iraqi %o occupation and is widely blamed for the harsh treatment, including torture, carried out there to suppress resistance.

A Western diplomat in Cairo, Egypt, who once served in Baghdad said the Cabinet shuffle suggested that Mr. Hussein was drawing his inner circle around him.

"Given the threats he is facing, he feels he has to do something," thediplomat said. "But in retrenching, he seems to be placing the premium on loyalty."

Iran said yesterday that the Iraqi army had suffered major reverses in fighting against Kurdish rebels. And in Syria, a Kurdish rebel leader, Jalal Talabani, announced that he would soon return to Iraq after a three-year absence to help organize Kurdish forces. Kurdish rebel groups say they control 95 percent of the northern region, which they refer to as Kurdistan, including the crucial oil center of Kirkuk.

Iran and Syria said fighting was continuing in northern Iraq and several other cities in the center and south, including Baghdad and Amara. These assertions could not be independently confirmed.

Damascus radio said that Baghdad was ringed by loyal units of the Republican Guard, the Iraqi army's best-trained and best-equipped force. The Syrian broadcast also said that demonstrators in Baghdad tried to attack food storage sites. That report, too, could not be confirmed.

Mr. Talabani said Iraqi troops had pulled out of Kirkuk and were shelling it with long-range artillery.

He added that the thrust of Kurdish attacks would now be focused on Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

In the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, there seems to be growing unease at the notion that Shiite rebels in the south of Iraq, who are supported by Iran and closely identified with the ruling clergy there, could emerge as the leaders of Iraq.

The preference of many senior policy-makers in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is for a coup by senior military officers against Mr. Hussein and the continuation of Sunni Muslim control in Iraq.

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