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US Draws Line in Mideast Sand

Troop shifts, Iraqi defections are signs of weaker Saddam

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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.

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