IF THERE is any group to which Iraq's invasion of Kuwait came as no surprise, it is the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, forced to live in exile for fear of the threat to their lives posed by the brutal security forces of their own president, are now scattered throughout the world.

Several thousand Iraqis have been living in Kuwait, and their fate after the takeover of that country is the cause of serious concern. According to press reports, they are being rounded up by Iraqi security agents. The sad irony is that some of these people, who were persecuted and often handed over to Iraq by the Emirs of Kuwait, were among the few rushing to defend Kuwait with their own blood.

The Iraqi opposition has long been trying to warn the world of Saddam Hussein's true nature as they knew it first-hand, and of the danger he posed to peace and stability. Its representatives have met with the ministers and secretaries of those nations who have for years been helping Saddam Hussein create his immense military force. These ministers told us that they knew Saddam was a bad man, but that so long as he opposed the rise of militant fundamentalism, he was useful. We warned that he was not to be trusted, that like the bottled djinn of Arabic folklore, once out of danger he would turn on his benefactors. That is exactly what has happened.

The Iraqi opposition abroad represents a cross-section of the population of Iraq; its members come from all social classes, ethnic and national groups, and religions and sects. They are Arabs and Kurds, Moslems and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. Among them you would recognize a full spectrum from bourgeois capitalists to liberal democrats, Islamic fundamentalists and communists, even Baathists of Saddam Hussein's own party who have been disillusioned with the corruption and brutality of his autocratic rule. Despite its varied makeup, the opposition is united in its support of a democratic system in Iraq.

The opposition inside Iraq, though broad-based, is necessarily less visible. Criticizing Saddam is punishable by death. Though there have been outbreaks of violence in some areas of Iraq, most opposition is passive. Few have cooperated, for example, in lending their legitimacy to the puppet "opposition parties" that Saddam has established. Those who have opposed him more openly have disappeared or have been imprisoned and, in dozens of cases, executed. Reports in the Egyptian press indicate that 120 officers of Saddam's army who objected to the invasion of Kuwait, for example, were executed.

Saddam Hussein has given us all ample opportunity to witness his brutality since well before he took complete power in a 1979 palace coup. After years of eliminating his potential opponants -- including both rivals and friends -- he began his reign with a bloodbath, executing the prime minister and several leading party stalwarts and senior army officers after a show trial, and installing himself as president, party secretary and of course commander-in-chief.

His major achievement as president until now has been the war with Iran, which cost both countries hundreds of thousands of their youth and has caused irreparable economic damage. Under Saddam's leadership, Iraq averted defeat only through massive support from the West, including the involvement of the United States, and the funding of the Gulf oil states. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia gave Iraq some $30 billion.

During the Gulf War Saddam used chemical weapons, contrary to the Geneva protocol. In March 1988, more than 8000 people were killed by nerve gas in the Kurdish town of Halabja. Yet another campaign using chemical weapons was launched in August 1988, and though the true casualty figures will never be ascertained, thousands more are believed to have died. Earlier this year another campaign, again using chemical weapons, was launched against Arab tribes in Iraq's southern marshes. Saddam's government regularly dismisses atrocity reports as "Zionist propaganda," but on a recent appearance on ABC, Saddam defended his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds because, as he put it, they were "traitors."

Saddam has been destroying Iraq from within. He has deported half-a-million Shiite Arabs to Iran, confiscating their property, and has attempted to destroy the ancient Shiite institutions based in Najaf and Kerbala, in central Iraq. Schools there have been closed, and leading clerics killed under torture, executed or banished. The damage inflicted on national unity has been devastating, and it will take many years to heal such wounds.

Saddam's finances are in tatters. His foreign reserves are depleted. Iraq's foreign debts now stand at about $70 billion and need to be serviced, while he faces maintaining a vast army and feeding a population of some 16 million people. With oil prices slumping, his only course has been to turn against his one-time benefactors, the same Kuwaitis who days ago were brother Arabs and who are now suddenly discovered to have been in collusion with "U.S. imperialism" and Zionism. To maintain his own power, Saddam has dealt a shattering blow to Arab solidarity.

In spite of the regime's brutality, opposition to Saddam is strong inside the country, though it remains underground. In February, a group of opposition leaders in exile appealed for an end to dictatorship and government by personality cult, and demanded the establishment of representative and responsible government based on free elections and a multi-party system.

The appeal was well-received internationally, but Saddam's reply came last month. A new draft constitution was announced which combined all executive, legislative and judicial powers in the hands of the president, and gave him full authority to dismiss the national assembly, whose members must be approved by the government before running for office. For good measure, the so-called national assembly passed a resolution nominating Saddam Hussein as president-for-life.

In the current grave situation, the democratic opposition in Iraq views the invasion of Kuwait as harmful to Arab solidarity, and not representative of the true wishes of the Iraqi people. They believe that the democratic forces of both Iraq and Kuwait (where the constitution was recently suspended, and parliament dissolved) should join hands to end the occupation of Kuwait. While, as Arab nationalists, they support unity between the two countries, they believe that this should come by the freely expressed will of both peoples.

Selim Fakhri is a retired Iraqi army colonel living in exile in London.