LONDON, AUG. 15 -- When a French television station broadcast footage of the execution of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife a few months ago, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein distributed copies of the tape to leaders of his ruling Baath Party, according to a well-informed Iraqi dissident.
Saddam wanted them to watch, learn and heed the warning -- that what happened to Ceaucescu could happen to them if they did not take the necessary precautions, the dissident said. A few weeks later, Saddam ordered the execution of four senior army officers accused of disloyalty, and the arrest of 25 pilots suspected of plotting to shoot down the presidential plane.
As the noose of Western warships and economic sanctions tightens around Iraq, many in the West are hoping that Iraqis will choose to avoid a bloody showdown by overthrowing the ruler who has brought them to the brink of military confrontation with the United States. President Bush recently suggested such an outcome would be welcomed by governments throughout the world.
But some of those who know the regime well -- dissidents and opposition politicians who fled Iraq to escape harassment or execution -- say the likelihood of a successful coup within the next days or weeks is small. Saddam, they say, has weathered many storms before, relentlessly pursuing opponents and potential rivals.
Some say Western tolerance of Iraq and tacit support of it during the war with Iran, coupled with a refusal to cultivate opposition forces for fear of alienating Saddam, have helped silence dissent within the country.
Still, Saddam has many opponents -- including Islamic Shiite fundamentalists who feel oppressed by the ruling Sunni minority, Kurdish nationalists, democrats and Communists -- who many say could play an important role in a post-Saddam Iraq. But these opponents are so fragmented and weakened from years of repression, the sources say, that few believe they could mount an effective internal challenge.
"You want someone who can reach Saddam Hussein and finish him off and do it soon, and this is not available," said Selim Fakhri, a former Iraqi army colonel living here.
What is possible, said Fakhri and other analysts, is that members of Saddam's own ruling elite -- most of whom come from his home village of Takrit -- may gradually lose faith in Iraq's ability to survive the international opprobrium that his invasion of Kuwait has brought down upon them. It is also possible that one of the periodic challenges to his rule from within the Iraqi army could succeed.
"The situation they are in now could give impetus to officers or to the Takritis themselves," said Saad Jabr, leader of the New Umma Party, an exiled opposition party. "It's clear they don't want to go down the drain with Saddam."
Those are scenarios. What is reality is the ruthless manner in which Saddam has dealt with coup plotters in the past. Every dissident has stories to tell, but all give the same account of the fate of Riyadh Ibrahim to illustrate how the Iraqi leader deals with those he suspects of disloyalty:
A London-educated physician, Ibrahim was minister of health in 1982, when the Iranian successes in the Iran-Iraq war were followed by a demand from Tehran that Saddam be deposed as a precondition for peace talks. By these accounts, the cabinet met and Saddam asked what he should do. After all of the ministers insisted he remain in office, Saddam pleaded with them to be candid and offered to resign. At that point, Ibrahim reportedly suggested that Saddam might step aside temporarily until a peace accord was final.
Saddam thanked Ibrahim for his candor, then ordered his arrest. When Ibrahim's wife pleaded with him personally for her husband's release, Saddam promised to comply. "His body was delivered to the house the next day in a black bag," said Sahib Hakim, who heads the Organization for Human Rights in Iraq here. "It was chopped in little pieces."
Saddam's fascination with Ceaucescu's fate is no coincidence, some analysts say. The two regimes shared many features, especially the elaborate network of internal monitoring in which neighbor informed on neighbor, student on teacher, children on parents.
The main difference is economic -- while Romania limped along financially in later years with limited rewards for the faithful, Iraq's elite has reaped a huge windfall of oil revenues that helped finance the security apparatus while buying the loyalty of key elements in the society.
The key element was the army, which for decades was a center of political power inside Iraq. After the Baath Party takeover in 1968, Saddam and his supporters gradually transformed the army's command structure, eliminating its autonomy and installing their own cadres of loyalists and informers.
Still, analysts say the army has been a constant source of potential conflict for Saddam. There have been four credible reports of coup attempts this year alone, according to Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq analyst at the Harvard Center for Middle East Studies. She mentioned one on Jan. 6, Iraq's Army Day, reportedly involving an abortive car-bomb assassination attempt.
To forestall such attempts, Saddam is continually purging the army's officer corps, while playing off branches of the armed forces against each other. After the 1988 cease-fire with Iran, he reportedly executed several senior officers and demoted several whose popularity made them potential rivals.
Last year, his defense minister and brother-in-law, Gen. Adnan Khairallah, died in a mysterious helicopter accident. And last month, while in the midst of planning the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam ordered the arrest of two senior officers in military intelligence and of Maj. Gen. Maher Abdul Rashid, a popular and outspoken commander known as the "Hero of Faw" for his role in winning back the strategic Faw Peninsula from Iran.
There are mixed reports about the army's response to the Kuwait invasion, which was executed with smooth military precision. One unconfirmed but widely circulated report contends Saddam executed a dozen officers who objected to the invasion. Some soldiers have told Kuwaitis that they had been briefed and prepared for a war against Israel and were surprised to find themselves in Kuwait instead.
A senior figure in the Iraqi exile movement contends elements in the army would be more willing to oppose Saddam if they believed they would be supported by the West. "There are officers in the army in contact with us," he said. "They have two questions for us: 'If we make a coup attempt, who will protect us from poison gas? And can we get political help and cooperation once in power?' "
An exiled Iraqi scholar who writes under the pen name Samir Khalil contends the growing pressure on Iraq may work in Saddam's favor at least temporarily because it could increase the cohesion of the small elite that supports him.
"Most of the people in his immediate circle are deeply implicated in his ascent and in the way he has held onto power and they must believe their own survival is tied to his," said Khalil, author of the book "Republic of Fear."
"For people of his own kind, this is the least likely time for a coup. The crisis feeds the atmosphere of xenophobia and paranoia that holds them together. I don't think they'll crack now."
Others disagree. Mylroie, who visited Iraq three times last year, noted public statements from Saddam and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz indicating that the regime was preparing to undertake limited political reforms after the 1988 cease-fire with Iran. Although since scrapped, those moves suggest a government aware of rising discontent and seeking a way to defuse it.
"I was told, 'You Westerners think everything is under control here -- but the regime fears an explosion,' " she said. "I wouldn't underestimate the level of popular unrest in Iraq and its possible impact on Saddam.
"There have been many plots against Saddam and this business in the gulf probably will accelerate that dynamic -- both plots against him and his own plots to stay in power."