Iraqi President Saddam Hussein replaced his defense minister Wednesday with a younger, hard-line war hero in an apparent show of resolve before the upcoming U.S.-Iraqi talks aimed at seeking a peaceful solution to the Persian Gulf crisis.
State-owned Baghdad Radio said Saddam promoted Gen. Saadi Toamma Abbas to replace Lt. Gen. Abdul Jabar Shanshal as defense minister. Shanshal, in his 70s, was demoted to his previous post of minister of state for military affairs, the broadcast said.Arab diplomats in the Middle East said Toamma, a younger man who was serving as general inspector of the armed forces, had backed Saddam from the beginning of the 4-month-old standoff.
Toamma also led the Iraqi forces that recaptured the Faw peninsula from Iranian troops in a key victory toward the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
"Replacing Shanshal with a hard-liner like Toamma is Saddam's way of telling the Americans his military means business," said one Arab envoy in Cairo who requested anonymity. "The move is also significant because it comes before Iraq-U.S. talks on the gulf."
President Bush is sending Secretary of State James Baker to Baghdad to pursue a peaceful solution to the gulf crisis, and Saddam is sending his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, to Washington for similar consultations.
Shanshal was the fourth senior Iraqi official to lose his job since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
Iraq's ruling Baath party newspaper, Al-Thawra, said civil defense authorities have instructed all owners of buildings with two or more floors to convert their basements into bomb shelters. It ordered the owners to post signs informing people where to take cover.
Under Iraqi law, landlords can be fined or imprisoned for failing to build the shelters and prepare them to receive people in time of war.
Meanwhile, Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid left Jordan on a mission that will take him to Iraq and Saudi Arabia in an effort to mediate the crisis. Bendjedid is one of the few Arab leaders still on speaking terms with both Iraqi and Saudi leaders.
At the same time, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was to meet with President Bush in Washington for talks that were expected to focus on the standoff.
After talks in Houston with Baker on Tuesday, Shevardnadze urged an early dialogue between Iraq and theUnited States. Washington has accused Iraq of stalling on the dates.
In a related development, France threatened Wednesday to withdraw its support for a U.N. Security Council resolution chastising Israel for its conduct in the West Bank and Gaza unless the text of the document mentions specifically calls for an international conference on the Mideast.
Bush has insisted that Iraq's occupation of Kuwait should not be linked to the Palestinian issue, and on Tuesday he reassured Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that Washington would not settle the gulf crisis at the expense of the Jewish state.
On Tuesday, the State Department said the evacuation of Americans from Iraq and occupied Kuwait appears to be complete, and as many as 500 Americans have chosen to remain in the two countries.
Many of the 500 left behind are entitled to U.S. passports, including foreign-born children in families where one of the spouses is an American citizen. In some cases, according to the State Department, parents decided that they belonged in Iraq or Kuwait and chose to stay.
Another charter will be sent to Kuwait and Baghdad on Thursday because of the possibility that some Americans may still be in hiding or had not had access to the Voice of America short-wave announcements about the freedom flights.
That flight also may carry the last of the U.S. diplomats who have holed up in the embassy in Kuwait - Ambassador Nathaniel Howell and four others - after which the compound will be effectively closed.
In previous shake-ups Saddam fired his chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Nizar Khazarghi, in an apparent dispute over the occupation of Kuwait. Earlier, a leading member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, Saadoun Shaker, quit for what was officially called health reasons. Arab diplomats said he was fired for opposing Saddam's Kuwait policy.
In October Saddam fired his oil minister, Issam Abdulrahim Chelabi, for ordering the rationing of gasoline in Iraq, giving the impression that economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations were working.