US Draws Line in Mideast Sand

Troop shifts, Iraqi defections are signs of weaker Saddam

HOPING to finish a geopolitical job begun by George Bush, the Clinton administration is redoubling a late-summer pressure campaign aimed at toppling America's dour Middle East nemesis, Saddam Hussein.

The effort combines subtle sword-rattling - a common occurrence in US-Iraqi relations - with blandishments to Jordan, Iraq's next-door neighbor and the closest thing to a friend Saddam has had in recent years.

Don't expect the post-Saddam era to begin tomorrow. But the recent defection of two top-level Iraqi officials shows there are serious fissures in Baghdad, many experts say. Next on the US diplomatic agenda: planning for what surely will be a confusing situation if the Iraqi regime finally falls.

''The worst thing would be to end up with Saddamism without Saddam. It's important that the US not focus exclusively on getting him out,'' says Richard Haas, director of national security programs at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The two prominent Iraqi defectors are unlikely to be acceptable replacements for Saddam in anyone's eyes but their own. Both Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel and Col. Saddam Kamel are sons-in-law of Saddam and, in the Western view, tainted by association with the current regime's abuses.

Both are wily survivors of treacherous politics, with their own agendas to promote, according to US experts. Some of the information they have imparted will be extremely valuable - Hussein Kamel, after all, oversaw Iraq's chemical, biological, and atomic weapons programs. But they are unlikely to tell everything, and US officials doubt some of their wilder claims.

Secretary of Defense William Perry, for instance, said Tuesday that he has seen no evidence in recent weeks indicating Iraq was about to invade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as Hussein Kamel has claimed.

Iraq is continuing its weeks-old pattern of unusual troop movements, which includes such things as leaving barracks in convoy, Mr. Perry said. But US intelligence has not detected the logistics buildup and other activities that would accompany invasion plans. That contrasts with last year, when the US did see such activity and quickly dispatched forces to the region to guard against any new offensive.

''In October 1994 we saw the evidence on the ground of the deployments. We do not see that evidence today,'' Perry said.

According to many experts, Saddam Hussein has suffered a more serious defection in recent weeks than that of his sons-in-law - Jordan and King Hussein. King Hussein has been reluctant to take in Iraqi dissidents in the past; by accepting Hussein Kamel and Saddam Kamel on his soil the king has perhaps shown he is leaning back toward Saudi Arabia and more pro-Western ways.

The US would like Jordan to go further and cut remaining economic and political ties with Iraq. King Hussein, under an exemption from UN economic sanctions, buys cut-rate oil from Saddam, providing him with his only continuing source of hard currency. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia is now offering to replace discount Iraqi crude with its own petroleum products. US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert Pelletreau has been to Amman often in recent days, dangling this and perhaps other economic inducements.

Meanwhile, trademark US sword-rattling continues. ''Vigilant Sentinel,'' the Pentagon's answer to Iraq's recent unusual military movements, has resulted in the dispatch of US ships carrying equipment for some 22,000 soldiers to the region. Live-fire training in the Kuwaiti desert for 1,400 troops from the US First Cavalry Division, scheduled for October, has been moved up to begin later this month.

Some Arab diplomats, among other critics, have said the Clinton administration's troop deployments constitute an overreaction to the twitches of a weakened Saddam. US defense officials, for their part, say that the Gulf war shows Iraq does not understand quiet messages. The deployments are intended to make sure Iraq gets the message: back off.

For its part, the Iraqi regime may understand that its international image continues to take a beating. This week, Iraq revealed to the head of the UN inspection program that it had carried out a much more extensive biological weapons effort than it had previously admitted. The disclosure was perhaps an attempt to preempt the effect of Hussein Kamel telling the UN the same thing.

Will this summer struggle end with an autumn ouster of the longtime Iraqi strongman? Only Saddam's inner circle may know the answer. ''We can't go into Iraq and topple Saddam. The Iraqis must do that themselves,'' says Phoebe Marr, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington.

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