President Bush said yesterday he would be happy if the Iraqi people decided to dump their leader, President Saddam Hussein. But the problem with this approach, according to Iraqi dissidents, is that there is no effective opposition within Iraq.

"It wouldn't disappoint me if the Iraqis got up and said, 'Look, this man is our problem,' " Bush said in answer to a question during his televised news conference. He would not comment on whether the United States had a plan to promote the ouster of Saddam.

But in interviews this week, several prominent Iraqi dissidents stressed that Iraq's splintered and exiled opposition organizations are ill-prepared to conduct effective operations inside Iraq to oppose Saddam.

Because of years of suppression by Saddam's multiple security agencies, "there is no opposition to Saddam inside Iraq," said Saad Jabr, the leader of a London-based Iraqi opposition group, the New Umma (Nation) Party. "If someone tells you he has an organization or cells inside Iraq, he is lying . . . or being too optimistic."

The Iraqis most likely to act against Saddam are those of his own clan who hold key government and military positions, Jabr said. The members of this inner circle, mostly from Saddam's home town of Tikrit in central Iraq, are known by the family name that Saddam dropped years ago -- "Tikriti."

"Tikritis are the people who can get to him, who know his movements," explained Jabr.

Within days of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait on Aug. 2, The Washington Post quoted informed sources as saying President Bush had ordered U.S. government agencies to explore the possibility of covert action against Saddam, including support for dissidents within and outside of Iraq and economic pressures. That push appears to be moving slowly, in part because U.S. officials have recognized the difficulty of organizing any effective internal opposition.

Jabr, who said he maintains informal contact with U.S. officials on Iraq, said, "I believe something is being formulated, but they {the U.S. government} have to deal with other complications." He said U.S. officials appeared preoccupied with the immediate crisis in the Persian Gulf and seemed to have only preliminary ideas about any cooperation with opposition groups.

According to one Iraqi emigre with links to several opposition groups, many Iraqi dissidents don't want covert discussions. "Everything would have to be overt," he said. "We are not rebels for hire."

Another potential obstacle to covert action comes from Iraq's ethnic Kurds -- one of the major poles of opposition to Saddam -- who have expressed bitterness over their past experience in cooperating with U.S. covert activities. The United States secretly aided Kurdish rebels during the early 1970s but suddenly cut off the support when Iraq settled its differences with the shah of Iran, then the key U.S. ally in the region.

Providing open support to Iraqi opposition groups also would pose problems for the United States, said the Iraqi emigre, who asked not to be named. "Talking to the opposition means talking to the Kurds," he said. "That would make Turkey unhappy," because U.S. support for Iraqi Kurds might strengthen or encourage nationalist Kurds in eastern Turkey.

Aggressive U.S. support for Iraqi opposition groups would also mean "talking about democracy," the emigre said. "That would make the Saudis unhappy." Saudi Arabia is a traditional monarchy with no constitution or elected legislature.

Jabr, one of the few Iraqi opposition leaders to operate publicly, is visiting Washington this week. The son of a prime minister under the monarchy that was overthrown in 1958 by military officers with support of Saddam's Baathist Party, Jabr maintains contacts with U.S. officials in London, according to a State Department official, who described him recently as one of the Iraqi opposition leaders that the United States would prefer to support.

Jabr's New Umma Party, dominated by Western-educated, exiled Iraqis, calls for a liberal constitution to guarantee civil rights and for a multi-party political system.

Jabr emphasized the importance of the Tikritis in any move to oust Saddam. He said the Iraqi leader, over the years, has installed them in the top layers of the military and security services. Jabr estimated that 700 to 800 Tikritis form the essential machinery through which Saddam holds military and political power.

"Tikritis are at the head of the air force, the state security, the Mukhabarat {intelligence service} and the presidential guards -- and in each place, they may be six to 10 deep from the top," Jabr said.

"The Tikritis have won power and wealth from Saddam," Jabr said, but they fear that Saddam is headed for a cataclysmic fall that will sweep them with him. "Every Tikriti feels this guy is going to bring his death and his children's death," he said.

Jabr said Saddam fears plots among members of this Tikriti elite. In May, he said, Saddam arrested the former chief of the Mukhabarat, Fadhil Barrak Tikriti, and 160 of his relatives and associates. Tikriti was accused of plotting against Saddam. Also last month, the newsletter of Jabr's party reported the executions of five brigadier generals, including Tikritis, following an attempted coup in May.