For more than a year, Washington has been trying out a new strategy in its war of nerves with Iraq--or at least, has been trying to look as if it has a new strategy. The gambit is to support a supposedly democratic Iraqi opposition in its armed struggle against Saddam Hussein's government. But there is a yawning gap between the administration's ambitious rhetoric and its halfhearted actions.

Last fall, for example, it sent a handful of Iraqi opposition members to train at a military facility in the United States. The gesture was widely publicized--but modest, to say the least.

Yet perhaps we should not be too quick to decry this bit of political theater. A policy that followed our rhetoric to the letter might produce disaster.

The truth is that the Iraqi opposition is too disorganized and Saddam Hussein is too strong for the opposition to defeat him on the field of battle. That has not changed since October 1998, when Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, authorizing $97 million in aid to Iraqi opposition groups. The administration embraced the concept--and with it, a somewhat unpromising collection of would-be rebels. In December of that year, as bombs fell on Baghdad, President Clinton declared that the United States would "strengthen our engagement with the full range of Iraqi opposition forces."

Through 1999, the administration's rhetoric continued to sound the same bold notes. On Nov. 1, Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told a gathering of Iraqi opposition leaders, "The United States hears you, and will actively support you not only until you are free, but also thereafter in rebuilding a new, democratic Iraq." In November, Congress appropriated an additional $8 million for the opposition.

But the United States's embrace of the Iraqi opposition came much too late to succeed. Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton have emphasized containing Saddam Hussein, keeping Iraq weak and preventing any Iraqi aggression outside its own borders. In northern Iraq, a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone gave minimal protection to opposition forces who used the area as a base.

There, rebels conducted limited operations against Saddam Hussein's forces, with some minor financial support for organizational expenses from the United States. Things changed when Saddam Hussein's army invaded the north in August and September of 1996 with the temporary support of one of the two major Kurdish factions--a group that had previously cooperated with the United States. The northern offensive killed or captured hundreds of opposition figures, and the United States evacuated thousands more. The already slim hope that the opposition would topple Saddam Hussein weakened further. A clandestine U.S. campaign to remove the Iraqi dictator, separate from the military effort in northern Iraq but depending in part on assets based in the safe zone, also suffered considerably. Three years later, the opposition's political headquarters is in London, and its on-the-ground presence in Iraq is almost nonexistent.

Events in 1997 and 1998--Saddam Hussein's repeated obstruction of weapons inspections and a growing perception that sanctions were hurting ordinary Iraqis more than their leaders--led to a general sense that containment was failing.

Frustration led to a search for an alternative. Many of the administration's critics began using the Cold War term "rollback" to signal a new, more aggressive approach. The rollback concept touted by the opposition offered a rosy, if unrealistic, scenario: By training and arming key Iraqi dissidents, the United States would forge a coalition that would attract an army of sympathizers; Saddam Hussein's forces would collapse, and the opposition would triumph without the involvement of U.S. troops. The dictator would be replaced by a government representing Iraq's many communities and factions. It was this grandiose vision--as well as the chance to one-up the administration--that spurred congressional backers of the opposition and led to the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act.

Despite its supportive rhetoric, the Clinton administration has taken only modest steps to implement the act's goals, transferring several million dollars worth of fax machines, filing cabinets and other office equipment to various groups. Then, a couple of months ago, the administration made a show of bringing four Iraqis, including two former officers in Saddam Hussein's military, to the Air Force's special operations headquarters in Florida, where they were to be schooled on how to organize the armed forces in an emerging state.

But the true degree of the administration's commitment is revealed by assessing what it has not done. It has not trained or armed large cadres of the opposition. More importantly, the administration has pointedly refrained from using U.S. military muscle--airstrikes, supplying intelligence on Iraqi forces or other forms of direct support--to back up opposition efforts.

Congress has not done much better. The $97 million appropriated under the act and the $8 million follow-up pales before the billions sent to the Afghan mujaheddin, the Nicaraguan contras and other Cold War friends of the United States.

So, more than a year after passage of the act--and much talk about removing the Iraqi leader--what has actually been achieved?

It is some credit to the administration that most opposition factions are now on speaking terms with one another. But the opposition is not in any genuine sense unified. The groups that attended the New York conference did not include such important factions as the Iraqi Communist Party or the Iranian-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq--two groups that have been particularly active militarily by engaging in sporadic sabotage and attacks against regime officials. Kurdish factions, focused on their own problems, are lukewarm members of the overall coalition. And the platform adopted at the meeting was conspicuous by its blandness. Basic issues, such as the nature of a post-Saddam Hussein regime and the type of struggle it would wage to remove him, were papered over.

Although sanctions and U.S. military strikes have depleted his forces, Saddam Hussein still retains 23 divisions, including 11 heavy divisions, while the opposition consists of untrained, disorganized forces that have access only to light equipment. Saddam Hussein's soldiers--particularly the members of elite units who are the best armed and best trained--have shown little inclination to defect en masse.

There's the rub. Without massive U.S. air support, any military effort against Saddam Hussein would be quickly overwhelmed. Washington would thus either be forced into a protracted conflict on behalf of the opposition or bear some responsibility for its defeat.

Another risk is that making the opposition more prominent and inclusive might actually unify Iraq's elites behind Saddam Hussein. Those most able to carry out a coup or assassinate him--the security and military services, Baath Party officials and Sunni tribal elites--all share the Iraqi leader's hostility toward Iraq's Kurds and majority Shiites.

What's more, America's friends in the region are skeptical of the whole idea, and they see our hesitant embrace of the opposition as a sign that we are not serious about removing the Iraqi leader. Saudi Arabia is concerned that the fractious opposition could increase instability in Iraq or bring a Shiite regime to power, both of which the conservative Sunni regime in Riyadh would oppose. Turkey, with its own restive Kurdish population, fears any plan that might encourage Kurds to seek more autonomy.

Outside the region, Russia, China and France have condemned the U.S. backing of the opposition. Even Britain, a steadfast ally, has voiced skepticism.

To continue Iraqi containment, on the other hand, the United States needs the support of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional allies. It also must maintain sanctions and restart the weapons inspection process, which the U.N. Security Council authorized (and Iraq formally rejected) last month.

It would be gratifying to think that the opposition can overthrow the Iraqi leader with such meager U.S. support, but a more sensible policy would use the Iraqi opposition instead as an adjunct to containment. The opposition's very existence demonstrates that an alternative to Saddam Hussein's repressive regime exists. A visible opposition movement would help keep him focused on enemies at home rather than aggression abroad. And, in the unlikely event that Saddam Hussein does fall from power, ties to Iraqi opposition groups would at least give the United States a horse to back in the race to succeed him.

Contingency operations in the Persian Gulf to counter Iraq cost the United States $1 billion a year, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Given that, a small investment in the opposition, such as the one initiated by the Iraq Liberation Act, seems prudent. This modest approach may promise less than the grandiose vision of rollback, but it is more realistic in recognizing the opposition's very real limitations--and those on American power, as well.

Daniel Byman is a Middle East policy analyst at the Rand Corp.