Saddam Takes Steps to Quiet Foes

Naming of Cabinet and prime minister aims at defusing discontent, consolidating party rule

THE formation Saturday of a new Iraqi Cabinet headed by Saadoun Hammadi appears to be aimed at consolidating the rule of the Arab Baath Socialist Party while seeking a means for reintegrating Iraq into the international community. Mr. Hammadi, a loyalist of Saddam Hussein, becomes the first prime minister in Iraq since the Baathist Party came to power in 1968. Saddam has been the de facto prime minister along with his posts as president and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council. Former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was named deputy prime minister.

The new steps were needed, Iraqi analysts say, to ensure broader power-sharing if Iraq is to pursue the democratization process promised recently by Saddam. The steps were seen as crucial to defuse domestic discontent and to deflect attention from Saddam, with whom the United States refuses to deal.

Hammadi, in line with Saddam's thinking, believes that preservation of Baathist Party rule is crucial for the continuity and unity of Iraq. He is expected to follow the same pan-Arab nationalist policies, but with a more flexible and less defiant attitude toward differing Arab governments and the US.

A Shiite Muslim himself, Hammadi, sources say, sees Baathism as the safety valve to foil attempts to fragment the country on a sectarian basis. Although the government now seems to be in control in the south, where predominantly Shiite violence erupted with the end of the war, instability there is viewed as more dangerous to the country and the regime than unrest in the Kurdish north.

Some officials feel that a rebellion in the north is more likely to be confined to Kurds, but instability in the south might spread to the rest of the country. Furthermore, they are skeptical that the US and countries that support the Kurdish movement will allow the creation of an independent Kurdish state, as that would place pressure on countries such as Iran and Turkey to grant the Kurds independence.

But if the rebellion in the south aroused fears of sectarian sedition, the war - and particularly Iraq's defeat - has led to the emergence of a weak but outspoken group calling for a retreat from the strong pan-Arab line Iraq has pursued under the Baathists.

Advocates of this line, which can loosely be termed isolationist, argue that Iraq should now focus on its own national interests.

Some analysts say this thinking results from weak support of the war on the part of the Arab world. This disappointment is sometimes translated in anger toward Palestinians, who are accused by some Iraqis of having dragged Iraq into a confrontation with the US. Some Baathist officials say that, although this reaction is understandable, it is unfair.

"The Palestinians were main losers. This argument is unfair," says a well-placed Baathist official. The official, however, also echoes the anger of other officials at Palestinian and Arab officials whom he says encouraged Saddam to pursue a completely uncompromising position.

They [some Palestinian leaders] pledged to take part in the war as soon as it started. They did nothing. They were not prepared and incapable of fulfilling their threats. But many Iraqis believed them," the official added, referring to prewar threats by some Palestinian leaders to strike at US and Western targets the minute Iraq was attacked.

The disillusionment has been so great that some Iraqis in Baghdad have concluded that pan-Arab nationalism is dead.

It is believed that one of the main tasks of the new Cabinet will be to revitalize the Baathist Party and its pan-Arabism.

(The Baathist Party was founded in Syria after World War II, with the aims of winning independence from the colonialist powers, Britain and France, and achieving Arab unity. Baathist parties developed into various Arab countries, but never succeeded in attempts at unification.)

Officals in Iraq are aware that, if the credibility of the system and party is to be restored, favoritism toward party members must end. Iraqi analysts and political observers stress the urgency of sweeping reforms, including the dismissal and purge of corrupt officials.

Arab experts on Iraq say that a policy that focuses on Iraq's narrow interests rather than pan-Arab commitments would only be possible if Baathism came to an end in Iraq.

Perhaps the seriousness of the challenge to pan-Arabism and Baathism in Iraq was most symbolically and effectively manifested on the last evening of the war.

Just a few hours before the US declared a cease-fire, the allied forces bombed the national and regional commands of the Baathist Party. The blasts destroyed the marble buildings and knocked off the statue of Michel Aflaq - the Syrian-born co-founder of the Baathist pan-Arab movement.

To Iraqis, it seemed a warning by allied forces to the regime. But the destruction of the Baathist headquarters has, in a metaphorical way, raised serious questions about the future of Baathism, questions the Hammadi Cabinet is expected to tackle.

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