The shift of some of Saddam Hussein's duties to Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council has prompted a debate over whether he is losing his grip on power or simply trying to give the impression of a move away from autocratic rule.

Some Middle East observers believe the council is trying to limit Saddam's authority in the aftermath of Iraq's crushing defeat in the Persian Gulf war while maintaining the dominance of the Baathist party.The Revolutionary Command Council announced Monday that it was taking over some of Saddam's executive powers but did not give details. Last week, Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi said the Iraqi people would be given the chance to determine the fate of Saddam in national elections.

Both announcements would have been unthinkable before the war, when official policy was that the more power Saddam held in his hands, the better that was for the Iraqi nation and its pan-Arab interests.

Reported concessions to Kurdish rebels also constitute a major shift in policy.

Saddam in the past refused to speak to the rebels, and all amnesties for Kurds issued over the past two decades excluded Kurdish guerrilla leader Jalal Talabani, whom the Baghdad government has accused of high treason.

"Since Saddam came to power in 1979, he has used the RCC, the Iraqi National Assembly and the Council of Ministers (Cabinet), as well as the armed forces and security apparatus, as his personal tools," said exiled Iraqi scientist Khalaf Majeedi.

"But since the war and the continuing problem of unrest in the north and south, these bodies are now trying to fight back to ensure their own survival," Majeedi said.

"They don't want to be dragged down with Saddam when he goes, as seems inevitable," he said.

This view is echoed by several diplomats from Arab states, who believe that the only hope of survival for the Baathists in Iraq is to introduce democratic reforms, even if they turn out to be formalities.

"Iraq has always been ruled by a strong hand since the monarchy was toppled in 1958," said one Kuwaiti diplomat who requested anonymity. "Saddam is similar to the first Iraqi leader after the 1958 revolution, Abdel Karim Qassim, who concentrated all powers in his hands.

"The only difference between them is the circumstances in the Arab world today, which do not favor Saddam," the diplomat said. "The only hope now for the Baathists to survive is to keep Saddam at arm's length. "

But other Arabs believe Saddam is still firmly in power and pulling the strings.

"In Iraq, there is only one man who takes decisions, and that man is Saddam," said one Iraqi Shiite spokesman in Damascus.

"Don't be fooled by so-called cosmetic changes, such as Saadoun Hammadi's call for more democracy," he said. "While the Baathists and the remnants of Saddam's rule remain in power, Iraq can never be democratic and free. They must be toppled if the Iraqi people are to see better days."