Ali Mamluk, deputy head of intelligence of the air force, has replaced Hisham Ikhtiar, who was elevated to a top level post as head of a newly set up national security bureau within the Baath Party, they said on Tuesday.

"He took up his post yesterday," said a Syrian political analyst with ties to members of the ruling party.

The choice of Mamluk, in his mid-50's, is part of efforts to streamline the "mukhabarat"  security service, focus it on domestic state security and downsize its pervasive role in society, other analysts said.

Damascus has come under growing international pressure amid a wave of agitation for democratic reforms in the Arab world.

"The timing of the new appointment and the credentials of the man is more than coincidental"

Western diplomat

At the moment three UN military officers are checking reports Syria may still have intelligence agents in Lebanon after Damascus pulled its 14,000 troops out of its smaller neighbour in April.

Political reforms

"The timing of the new appointment and the credentials of the man is more than coincidental. The regime wants to send a message that it understands what is going on around it and wants to move forward," said one Western diplomat.

Last week, the Baath Party circulated a directive abolishing 67 permits that ordinary Syrians normally need from the mukhabarat to license anything from a wedding to a billiard hall, a barber shop to a local grocer.

"There has been a growing feeling amongst Baath reformers that the role of the mukhabarat must be curtailed under a security reform plan that has been discussed to limit excesses," a diplomatic source said.

The Baath Party has said an
emergency law will be eased

Mamluk is expected to curb the agency's overt political role and heavy-handed tactics against political dissidents, a semi-official source said.

"The move is in line with efforts to push ahead with wider political reforms," said the source, who requested anonymity.

The ruling Baath Party congress last week announced plans to ease a 42-year-old emergency law that allows arbitrary arrests and trial at a State Security Court.

Abuses of power

The congress adopted modest steps on the path to political reforms, but offered no major liberalisation of the tightly controlled political system.

There has even been talk among Baath Party members of the need for security reforms that would consolidate the disparate and often competing secret police branches and define their  responsibilities, political analysts said.

Analysts said the new national security body should bring greater accountability and lessen abuses of power.

But Syrian rights activists say real change can come only with full democracy and an immediate end to emergency rule.