In this country and throughout Europe, antiwar organizations cite international law in urging President Bush not to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The National Council of Churches and other religious groups warn Bush that military action would "heighten concern in other countries about American respect for their integrity as nations, as well as for international law." The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain threatens to haul Prime Minister Tony Blair into court and backs up its threat with long briefs and many footnotes.

All perfectly understandable; no one wants a world in which powerful countries feel free to go about smashing into weaker ones. The groups' reading of the law -- that the United States and its allies would have no right to take action without another Security Council resolution -- may well be correct.

And yet, given that they have taken on Saddam Hussein as their client, you have to wonder whether, if their reading of the law is right, there isn't something peculiar, something out of whack, about international law itself. Yes, national borders should be respected. But why should a gangster who has maintained power only by violating every norm of morality and law -- including international law -- be permitted the sanctuary of those borders? Why should his regime be entitled to the same protection as a government that represents its people?

No one, not even the most dovish of the doves, maintains that Saddam Hussein is the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people. He rules by means of a brutal secret police using murder (of thousands and thousands of innocent people over the years) as its tool. The British government last week issued a brief report on Saddam Hussein's crimes that listed some of his favored methods of torture, in addition to the usual beatings and fingernail extractions: eye gouging, piercing of hands with electric drill, suspension from the ceiling, electric shock, sexual abuse, mock executions, acid baths. Wives are raped to extract confessions from husbands, while children are made to watch. Prisoners "are kept in rows of rectangular steel boxes, as found in mortuaries, until they either confess to their crimes or die."

Westerners who agitate against war are aware of all this, of course. "Understanding that Mr. Hussein poses a threat to his neighbors and to his own people," the Rev. Robert Edgar and his colleagues write, "we nevertheless believe it is wrong, as well as detrimental to U.S. interests to take such action."

"We have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement last month. "The Iraqi leadership must cease its internal repression, end its threats to its neighbors, stop any support for terrorism, abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and destroy all such existing weapons." Perhaps in their own realm the bishops are used to being obeyed. But on whose say-so they expect Saddam Hussein to "cease his internal repression" the bishops do not explain.

The opponents of war often claim to be speaking for the Iraqi people. In any dictatorship, it is impossible to gauge how the people feel, particularly in one as brutal as Iraq. Two years ago the Revolutionary Command Council added "amputation of the tongue" as an approved punishment for anyone who speaks ill of Saddam Hussein or his family.

Still, there are clues. About one in seven Iraqis has left the nation rather than live under his regime, as the British report pointed out.

And last week, the nonprofit International Crisis Group (ICG), which conducts research in troubled regions in an effort to encourage wise policy, issued, to little notice, a compelling report entitled "Voices From the Iraqi Street." The ICG researcher, interviewing ordinary Iraqis for the sixth time in recent years, found them more open than ever before. This in itself might be seen as an initial success of Bush's policy; the ICG attributed it to "the feelings shared by many Iraqis that some kind of political change is now unavoidable."

More remarkable, the interviewer found an "overwhelming sentiment . . . of frustration and impatience with the status quo." People want change, are willing to say so and, "if such a change required an American-led attack, they would support it."

This was almost too much for the ICG itself to swallow. "It was striking and unexpected to find how much willingness there is to embrace a U.S.-led war as a scenario for change," said Gareth Evans, ICG president and a former Australian foreign minister. "But that doesn't in itself mean that war is either advisable or inevitable."

His reaction mirrored that of Amnesty International to the British human rights report. Accustomed to complaining that no one takes its findings seriously, Amnesty now expresses horror that someone might actually respond to the abuse. The group wouldn't want the record to be "used selectively in order to achieve political goals," a spokesman said.

But why not? The peace groups, the religious organizations, the human rights advocates want the moral high ground of always condemning repression -- and always opposing the use of force. They may have international law on their side. Whether the interests of the Iraqi people are there too is a harder question.

e-mail: fredhiatt@washpost.com