LONDON, AUG. 26 -- As much of the world is drawn into a crisis spawned by the actions of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one group feels entitled to say, "We told you so": Iraq's scattered and diverse political opposition.

Ruthlessly suppressed at home, ignored, denigrated and at times betrayed by the West, and hopelessly divided among themselves, Saddam's opponents for years have issued unheeded warnings about the Iraqi leader's expansionist goals and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction and Gestapo-style tactics against enemies foreign or domestic.

Yet even with the Persian Gulf in crisis, they remain prophets without honor. Many Western analysts and intelligence specialists dismiss the opposition -- much of which is based here -- as too weak to play a significant role in overthrowing the Iraqi president or destabilizing his government. "We don't see them as particularly effective," said an official in the State Department, which this month rejected a meeting with one of the leaders of Iraq's Kurdish resistance movement.

Still, exiled dissidents insist they have an important role to play because of their links both with military leaders inside Iraq who they say oppose Saddam's rule and with an Iraqi population that they assert is growing restive despite a flood of nationalist propaganda from the government and relentless monitoring by its elaborate security network. They contend that, as in Eastern Europe, the government is weaker than it appears and that once it starts to crumble, their own supporters will emerge.

"If there is going to be change in Iraq, it must come from within," said Hoshyar Zebari, spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Front, a coalition of Kurdish movements. "There is an existing internal opposition to Saddam Hussein. If the United States and the West want to see democratic change, they must recognize the opposition and understand our objectives."

The opposition is a fragmented collection of Islamic fundamentalists, Kurds, nationalists and leftists who are divided along religious, ethnic, class and ideological lines. Some are fierce Iraqi nationalists, while others hold allegiance to Iran, Syria or even the Soviet Union. Most are suspicious of the Western governments that helped fund and arm Saddam during the past decade and that kept their distance from the dissidents because the Iraqi government objected to any contacts.

Since Saddam's Baath Party came to power in 1968, it has played divide-and-conquer with the opposition, cutting deals with various groups, setting one faction against another, imposing a reign of terror. In one case in 1985, according to Amnesty International, security forces arrested 300 children whose parents were deemed political activists. At least 29 were reported to have been executed. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights officially lists 2,876 Iraqi citizens who have "disappeared."

The opposition movements share two main features: All have been relentlessly repressed by Saddam, and all seek his downfall. But each group is ineffective on its own, analysts say, and must learn to rely on the others to become an effective force.

The traditional left, headed by the Iraqi Communist Party, was suppressed by force, including assassinations, in the late 1970s after its alliance with the ruling Baath Party broke down. Most analysts discount it as a force for change.

More potent is the Islamic fundamentalist movement rooted in Iraq's large Shiite community. About 55 percent of the country's 17 million people are Shiites. The largest fundamentalist party -- known as Dawa, or "The Call" in Arabic -- was banned by Baghdad in 1980, when several of its leaders were executed and thousands expelled to Iran. Dawa and several other Shiite factions have joined under the banner of the Iranian-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The Shiites' Iranian base is both a major source of support and their greatest liability. When Tehran's mullahs were at war with Baghdad, they gave Iraqi fundamentalists money, arms and encouragement. But since the 1988 cease-fire, analysts say, that support has waned and the Shiites have taken a lower profile. The new peace accord offered by Iraq will only compound the problem, they believe.

Shiism also divides the fundamentalists from Iraq's almost exclusively Sunni ruling elite. The elite may be afraid of Saddam, said an Iraqi dissident here, but it is more afraid of the Shiites. "He's had a basic feel for the psychology of the Sunnis -- if you keep the {Shiites} down, they will tolerate anything else you do," he said.

Like their Iranian brethren, Iraqi fundamentalists have been steadfastly anti-American, seeing the United States as a supporter of the Saddam government. When exiled Shiite leader Sayed Mahdi Hakim was assassinated by Iraqi agents in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, in 1988 and buried in Tehran, thousands of mourners chanted, "Revenge to America!" at the funeral, according to his cousin, Sahib Hakim, a dissident living here.

State Department officials concede they know little about the Shiites. "We don't know much about the internal workings of the Shiite community," said one official. "We've talked to them from time to time on the fringes of conferences. . . . For the most part, we don't seek them out and they don't seek us out."

Then there are Iraq's 4 million Kurds, an ethnic minority with a long history of armed resistance to Baghdad. After years of intermittent guerrilla warfare, Saddam's army turned its full attention to Kurdistan after the 1988 cease-fire with Iran, razing more than 3,000 villages, expelling tens of thousands to Turkey and Iran and, finally, using chemical weapons on several Kurdish towns to kill an estimated 10,000 civilians.

The chemical attacks crushed the resistance and sent thousands more Kurds fleeing across the border to Turkey, where many remain sheltered in bleak camps. Kurdish leaders concede it has taken them two years to recover and begin launching new attacks inside Iraq. The movement, which once boasted 30,000 fighters, now numbers only a few thousand.

But Kurdish leaders say the Iraqi army is withdrawing hundreds of tanks and heavy weapons along with troops from the Kurdish mountains to support its southern front with Kuwait, and they plan to intensify their own campaign.

Kurdish relations with the West have long been difficult. The Kurds felt betrayed by the United States in 1975, when Washington withdrew CIA support after Saddam signed an accord with the shah of Iran. The agreement recognized Iranian rights to the Shatt al-Arab waterway in return for suspension of Iranian aid to the Kurds -- a pact Saddam reneged on five years later when Iraq invaded Iran.

These days Washington's official lack of interest stems in part from a desire not to alienate the government of Turkey, which sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its territorial integrity. The Kurds insist they are only seeking political autonomy within a democratic Iraq, but State Department officials contend that ultimately the Kurds are looking for a breakaway state.

Western intelligence agents have been more forthcoming, according to dissidents, seeking meetings and opportunities to employ the Kurds and other dissidents to help subvert the government. But the dissidents say they are not interested. "Basically we're not going to be pawns again in other people's wars," said Kurdish spokesman Zebari.

The other major opposition group consists of secular Arab nationalists and pro-democracy dissidents, including former army officers and members of the government. Many have been hounded from Iraq or killed, and they concede that their base inside the country is small. But most are Sunnis who have ties to the ruling elite, and many are also close to Damascus, where a rival branch of the Baath Party rules under Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Many analysts believe the secular opposition is potentially the most significant and could play the key role in linking dissident forces inside Iraq to the West. But those dissidents also are bitter and suspicious about past Western support for Saddam.

"The State Department still won't talk to us," said a leading dissident here. "It's part of a racist attitude about Arabs. They wanted to deal with one strong man. They have treated us with total contempt."

The dissidents claim they are forging a unified front with Kurdish and Islamic groups. There was a joint meeting in Damascus two weeks ago, and there have been several joint statements from London condemning the invasion and encouraging collective U.N. action against Iraq.

But some contend that the divisions are too deep and the damage wreaked by the Iraqi government too widespread to allow the creation of an effective, united opposition.

"It's not Eastern Europe," said Samir Khalil, author of a new study of the Iraqi government. "Iraq is a police state in a classic 1930s meaning. There is a climate of fear, the kind of atmosphere that destroys civil society. If the regime crumbled or was destroyed, the opposition groups would rise overnight. But first the aura of fear has to be shattered."

Correspondent James Rupert contributed to this report in Washington.