Iraq's small group of English-language newspaper readers had a shock on Saturday: For the first time in more than 10 years, the Baghdad Observer failed to carry a cover picture of Saddam Hussein.

A spokesman for the Information Ministry, which publishes the paper, said the absence of the president's picture - or even a story about him - reflected a new policy: such photos will be used only when news events merit them.The policy appeared to be in line with the government's pledge to create a more open and democratic society in Iraq in the wake of the gulf war.

The spokesman, who insisted he not be named, said the broadsheet newspaper's front page had carried a picture of the president in every issue since the start of the Iraq-Iran war In 1980.

The photos were often old, studio-type pictures of the president unrelated to any news event.

Baghdad's Arabic-language newspapers, with much wider circulations, continued the old policy, however. All carried photos and articles about the president.