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Syria ousts 8 Cabinet ministers in shakeup

DAMASCUS -- President Bashar Assad shuffled his Cabinet yesterday, just weeks after the United States and the United Nations challenged Syria over its military presence in Lebanon and the security situation along its border with Iraq.

The changes were broader than expected and affected a third of Assad's Cabinet.

Ghazi Kenaan, 62, until two years ago Syria's top intelligence general in neighboring Lebanon, was named interior minister, according to an announcement carried by the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

During Kenaan's two decades in charge of Syrian affairs in Lebanon, Syria defeated opponents by using force or by outmaneuvering them to emerge as the main power broker.

Mahdi Dakhlallah, who for the last two years has been editor-in-chief of the al-Baath newspaper, was named information minister. Dakhlallah, 57, served for 19 years in the studies department of the Baath Party.

New ministers also were appointed in justice, health, commerce, industry, religious affairs and labor and social affairs. Farouk al-Sharaa, foreign minister since 1984, retained his position, as did General Hassan Turkmany, the defense minister, who was appointed in May to replace Major General Mustafa Tlass, who retired after 52 years of service.

Prime Minister Naji al-Otari's Cabinet took office in September 2003 in a move designed by Assad to speed the pace of his administrative and economic reforms.

Assad's replacement of eight ministers while keeping Otari as prime minister indicates that the president wants to maintain government policies but improve performance.

When he took office in 2000, Assad eased restrictions on political life that were in place since his late father, Hafez Assad, came to power in 1970. He has freed hundreds of political prisoners and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small indoor gatherings to discuss pro-democracy reforms. But he has also clamped down on pro-democracy activists, showing there is a limit to dissent.

Late last year, Washington imposed economic sanctions on Damascus. Last month, the UN Security Council demanded Syria withdraw its army from Lebanon, leading to some redeployment of forces, but fewer than the West hoped for.

Washington has accused Syria of not doing enough to stop the infiltration into Iraq of militants bent on fighting US-led coalition forces and their Iraqi allies. Syria has said it is doing all it can, and last week held military talks with US and coalition officers on ways to cooperate along the border.

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