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Is it the beginning of the end for Saddam Hussein?

Fueled by the defection of two high-level military officials, both members of Hussein's immediate family, speculation over the Iraqi leader's fate is at the highest pitch in recent years.But as White House and Pentagon officials assess evidence of Iraq's internal turmoil this weekend, the imminent fallout from the defections is twofold:

The flight of two of Hussein's sons-in-law with their families to Jordan raises the possibility of renewed military tension in the Middle East, even as it is likely to provide new insight into the extent of Iraq's military recovery from the Persian Gulf War.

For the moment, the United States must be careful not to antagonize or allow Hussein to create some excuse for a distracting military action, Clinton administration officials say.

"Given Saddam Hussein's record and his pattern of behavior," said White House spokesman Mike McCurry, "it's very smart for our forces to be prudent in the coming days."

In the immediate aftermath of the defections this week, there have been some "preparatory" moves reported at Iraqi military garrisons near Baghdad, with units taking tanks and artillery out of sheds. But the Pentagon and the State Department said there is no indication yet if that is a precaution against internal unrest or preparation for a military excursion.

In Jordan, where King Hussein's regime fears a possible backlash from his volatile, wounded neighbor, U.S. intelligence officials are helping their Jordanian counterparts debrief the prized defectors.

U.S. officials are reluctant to describe how valuable the defections may be to intelligence analysts but they are eager to learn more about Iraq's possible concealment of weapons and if there are any programs to manufacture stocks of gas or biological weapons.

Since the end of the Persian Gulf war four years ago and the imposition of international sanctions against the Iraqi regime, Hussein has ruled over a deteriorating economy and an increasingly frustrated populace.

There have been reports of regional rebellions in recent months, and defections from Iraq to neighboring Jordan are not uncommon. But it is almost unheard of for such senior military officers to successfully leave Hussein's inner circle.

Anytime there have been suspected mutinies or rumored coup attempts, they have been brutally put down. So far it is unclear if these defections were precipitated by a wider internal struggle.

Hussein is not easily overthrown, as President Clinton's predecessor, George Bush, discovered during and following the Persian Gulf war. A street fighter from his youth, Hussein rules not by popular mandate but through the efficiency of his secret police and his personal reputation for ruthlessness.

Hussein has fostered his own personality cult and, more importantly, surrounded himself with Baathist Party loyalists and members of his own Takriti clan, who owe their allegiance and power solely to Hussein.

The defectors, Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamal Hassan and his younger brother, Lt. Col. Saddam Kamel Hassan, are married to two of Hussein's daughters. The two brothers come from another clan but the same one as Hussein's father. One was in charge of rebuilding Iraq's military infrastructure and the other was reportedly responsible for Hussein's personal guards.

Along with 15 to 30 aides, children and Iraqi military men, the defectors traveled over 600 miles of desert road in a caravan of official government cars, all Mercedes sedans.

After a long talk with King Hussein on Thursday night, Clinton made a second call Friday. The president repeated his pledge to the king that the U.S. would protect Jordan from possible retaliation from the Iraqi dictator, who has ruled with absolute power since 1979.

Heading into the weekend, there was no evidence of new Iraqi military movements toward Jordan or against the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. Nonetheless, State Department spokesman David Johnson told reporters that Hussein's record "makes it prudent to prepare for such threats."

Last October, when Iraqi troops moved more of Hussein's elite Republican Guards closer to the Kuwait border, Clinton put American warships on high alert and ordered 4,000 U.S. troops into Kuwait, warning Hussein not to misjudge "American will or American power."

During the last three days, the president and U.S. government spokesmen all attributed the latest defections to the deteriorating conditions within Iraq and splits within Hussein's ruling clique.

In the first Iraqi reaction statement to the loss, Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz declared, "Any interpretations linking the escape of Hussein Kamel and conditions in the country are mere deceptions ... or wrong conclusions without any weight."

"Hussein Kamel occupied an important position in the state when he was part of it and loyal to it and its leader. ... When he betrays his country and leader and flees he loses all weight and any influence in the state's affairs."

The State Department spokesman said the defecting general's post gave him a unique and valuable position to report to the United Nations on Iraq's compliance or non-compliance with bans on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Jordan's King Hussein rejected an attempt by Saddam's eldest son, Odai, to secure the return of the defectors. Odai returned to Baghdad after a polite but tense 10-minute meeting Thursday, Jordanian officials told the Reuters news agency.

The defecting general was responsible for equipping Iraq's war machine that invaded Kuwait in August, 1990 and was driven out the following February.

Iraq's former intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Wafiq Samerai, said in neighboring Damascus, Syria, that the Iraqi army was in confusion after the defections.

"Reports coming to us from Iraq indicate there is disorder and confusion in the army and among the people, especially in Baghdad," said Samerai, who rebelled against Saddam and joined the opposition in exile eight months ago.