DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA -- A U.S.-led military assault to drive Iraq from Kuwait could trigger a fierce battle to control -- and perhaps dismember -- postwar Iraq, according to specialists on Iraq in the Middle East and Europe.

The destruction of Iraq's large military establishment and the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might set off a chaotic rush of territorial claims by Iran, Syria, Turkey and the large Kurdish population in northern Iraq, these experts said in interviews.

They said pressure to dismember Iraq or its large armed forces to prevent it from being a military threat in the future could create a power vacuum that other regional contenders -- such as Iran or Turkey -- might seek to fill. In addition, they said, Iraq's Shiite Moslem majority might seek to dominate the country and proclaim an Islamic republic in the image of Tehran's revolutionary regime.

"Saddam has served a very useful function for everyone as the linchpin of order in the region," said a London-based Iraqi opposition figure. "He has pleased the Turks by suppressing the Kurds; he has pleased the Saudis and Kuwaitis by suppressing the Shiites and any form of democracy, and he has kept the peace -- the peace of the graveyard, but the peace, nonetheless."

Although his assessment was somewhat cynical, this Saddam critic captured a growing fear among some Iraqi opposition groups, Arab governments and Western diplomats that a decision by the West to take military action against Saddam might topple a regime that has welded together a fractious society under one flag in a land long surrounded by rivals and enemies.

"It would be very dangerous to break the back of the Iraqi military and then leave," said a longtime Iraqi expatriate. "If you kill Saddam and then don't make a commitment to political reconstruction, then Iraq will be plunged into chaos." Such a reconstruction effort, he added, could take years.

The likely realities of life after Saddam have begun to wash over Middle Eastern capitals and through Western embassies as the international confrontation with Baghdad continues to build. None of the affected governments appears to have done any detailed planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, however.

Uncertainty about the future lies not only in whether Western warplanes and armies can bring Saddam's regime to an end, but also in whether a vanquished Iraq could survive as a nation.

"I guess what we may find out is whether Iraq is really a country that can withstand whatever pressure, or is it just artifically held together by the extreme capabilities of an absolute dictator?" said one U.S. specialist in Iraqi affairs.

More than a half-century ago, Iraq's King Faisal -- put on the throne by British colonial forces -- lamented that "there is still no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever."

Out of this tradition of anarchy, as the king put it, rose Saddam's Arab Baath Socialist Party and its promise to deliver the Arabs from colonial bonds and replace them with achievement and pan-Arab unity.

During the more than 11 years he has been in power, Saddam has used a combination of repression and reward to impose a sense of nationhood. His instruments of repression have been the military and an extensive secret-police networks and security apparatus.

Today, that security apparatus sits atop Iraqi society like a pyramid with Saddam at the top. All opposition has long since been driven underground, expelled or executed.

But specialists say the contenders for power in a post-Saddam Iraq would certainly include:

The country's approximately 9 million Shiites, the largest single population bloc, who are believed to have sacrificed the greatest numbers of dead in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war but remain disenfranchised under Saddam's Sunni Moslem-dominated regime.

Iraq's 3 million Kurds, who have long sought full autonomy and a share of the country's oil wealth, much of which lies under traditional Kurdish homelands in north Iraq.

The Turkmen population of northern Iraq whose ties to Turkey stem from the long rule of the region by the Ottoman Empire.

Syria, whose rival Baath Party wing has long sought Saddam's downfall in alliance with Iran.

"If any political change takes place, it's going to be bloody because there are so many old scores to settle," said one U.S. official in the region.

But some experts express confidence that under international supervision, Iraq's disparate population groups could come together. For example, diplomatic sources say two dissident Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, favor a democratic Iraq in which the Kurdish minority is granted full autonomy in a federated state and a share of oil revenues for development.

It is less clear what Syria and Iran would want in the event of a power vacuum in Baghdad, experts say. "This whole thing has put a gleam in Iran's eye," said one Iran specialist in the region.

The downfall of Saddam and the spread of Islamic ideals in Iraq, which holds some of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, was the unfulfilled dream of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who agreed to end the long Iran-Iraq war and then died less than a year later, in June 1989.

Iran also has long sought to be the dominant naval power in the Persian Gulf. "The Iranians will make their decisions incrementally," said one American official. "Iran is still relatively feeble {as a military power}." The reestablishment of a military balance between Iran and Iraq "partly depends on how we ourselves handle this," he added.

In trying to look ahead at all of the possible outcomes of the Persian Gulf crisis, the diplomat added: "One nightmare we face is that this {U.S. intervention} would not cause the balance in the region to be righted, but would cause it to be thrown further out of kilter."