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U.S. SAYS SADDAM IS LOSING GRIP

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The Clinton administration is portraying the defections of two of Saddam Hussein's daughters and their husbands as evidence that the Iraqi leader is losing his grip, but some private analysts say the meaning is far from clear.

President Clinton on Thursday publicly praised Jordan's King Hussein for granting the defectors asylum and said he had personally assured the king the United States would come to Jordan's defense if Iraq threatened military retaliation.At the Pentagon, spokesman Ken Bacon said an Iraqi military move against neighboring Jordan appeared unlikely, but that whatever Iraq's response, the 20,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region were "highly ready and highly mobile." Bacon said the Pentagon was "decidedly not" moving or increasing its forces there.

The defectors were two of Saddam's daughters and their husbands, Hussein and Saddam Kamel, who are brothers. At least two dozen military officers also left and were given asylum in Jordan.

The Kamel brothers are paternal cousins of the Iraqi president and are members of a tribal faction that has been at odds with Saddam in the past over issues involving money, power and foreign policy, said Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Iraqi affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

The Kamels were important figures.

Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid was fired Wednesday as industry minister; he had been head of Iraq's weapons programs.

He was accompanied by his brother Saddam Kamel, a colonel in the missile forces.

At a White House news conference, Clinton said he interpreted the defections as a vindication of the U.S. stance on keeping U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq.