Jordan seals rift with Saddam

Amman (AP) - In a harsh attack on President Saddam Hussein, Jordan's King Hussein said that it was "the right time for change" in Iraq's leadership, a newspaper reported yesterday.

"If a change occurs, it will only be a change for the better," King Hussein said, in an interview published in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. The king rarely criticises President Saddam and was one of the few regional leaders who tilted towards Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. The king praised the defection of Saddam's son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who received asylum when he reached Jordan last week with his family and an entourage of army officers.

But while the king denounced President Saddam, Jordan's Prime Minister stressed that the country would not be used as a springboard for anti- Saddam political activity.

The Prime Minister, Zeid Bin Shaker, held a closed-door meeting with members of parliament, and said that Jordan "granted only a humanitarian asylum" to the defectors. Mr al-Majid "will not be allowed to launch any activities to oppose the Iraqi regime from inside this country," the Prime Minister said. "If he wants to, he can go to any other country."

The defection has pushed Baghdad into a "serious and defining moment," Britain's junior defence minister, Nicholas Soames, said yesterday.

"I have no doubt that what happened will greatly damage the Iraqi regime," Mr Soames said in Amman. He left Amman on Monday for Egypt and will also visit Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

Iraqi opposition groups said that President Saddam's security forces had arrested dozens of Republican Guard officers and two government ministers who had close ties to Mr al-Majid.

The report by the opposition Iraqi National Congress, which is based in London, could not be confirmed. But the group has a reliable network of contacts inside Iraq.

Jordan, which relies on Iraq for oil and trade links, has long sought to avoid an all-out confrontation with its much larger neighbour.

The US President, Bill Clinton, has pledged to protect Jordan if it is threatened by Iraq. Joint military exercises between the United States and Jordan, planned before the drama of the past week, are to begin on 18 August near the Iraqi border. About 2,000 soldiers from the US are scheduled to take part.

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