Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has dismissed his military chief of staff, prompting Western officials to speculate there is dissension among Iraqi military leaders about the invasion of Kuwait.
Saddam replaced Lt. Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji with the commander of the elite Republican Guards, the Iraqi army newspaper and U.S. officials said Thursday.Western analysts with considerable knowledge of Iraq's military said the move could indicate opposition to holding onto conquered Kuwait in the face of the growing U.S.-led multinational force and U.N.-imposed sanctions.
The officials in Washington said it might even indicate opposition to Saddam's decision to invade the oil-rich emirate on Aug. 2.
The sacking of Khazraji, a hero of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, came amid mounting U.S. and British warnings that force might be used to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait if necessary.
"It's very ominous," said Hans-Heino Kopietz, a former analyst with London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, now with Control Risks, an international security firm in London.
"It's not wise to change horses in midstream. Khazraji's dismissal now is indicative of some opposition to Saddam within the military, who after all may have to take on the multinational force," said Kopietz, who just returned from a lengthy Middle East tour.
The Iraqi army newspaper, Al-Qadissiya, named the new chief of staff as Gen. Hussein Rashid, but did not say when he replaced Khazraji.
In Washington, officials confirmed Khazraji had been replaced by Rashid. They said Khazraji was replaced because he objected to the invasion. Khazraji has been made a special military adviser to Saddam, believed a demotion for the military commander, the officials said.
"Khazraji was promoted to a non-job," said one official.
Khazraji had been chief of staff since 1985 and was one of the top officers in Saddam's inner circle of military advisers.
"It's very odd," said analyst Shahram Chubin of the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Affairs and author of books on the Persian Gulf war.
"It's very easy to speculate. It's not yet clear why Saddam's done this, but he's taking a big gamble," he said.
Rashid was Khazraji's deputy and commanded the 120,000-strong Republican Guards, Saddam's best troops who are considered loyal to him and form a virtual separate army within the million-strong army.
The Republican Guards spearheaded the invasion of Kuwait. During the Iran-Iraq war, Rashid commanded an armored division with some success.