LONDON, JAN. 22 -- "What is at issue here is not the future of Kuwait," President Bush warned Saddam Hussein in the Jan. 5 letter that Baghdad never accepted, "but rather the future of Iraq."
As allied forces work to destroy Saddam's war machine and military-industrial complex, Western and Arab analysts and Iraqi political exiles are pondering what a future Iraq would look like without the leader who has so ruthlessly controlled the country for two decades.
Iraq after Saddam would likely be an unstable and violent place, analysts warn, although the degree of chaos would depend largely on how long the war lasts and how badly the country's political and economic infrastructure is damaged.
Many related questions are up for grabs: Would a new Iraq remain under the traditional dominance of its Sunni Moslem elite, or might the country's Shiite majority finally take power? Would it be ruled by another one-man regime, perhaps less brutal and unstable than Saddam's but equally dictatorial, or might it attempt a bold Middle Eastern experiment in democracy?
Will Iraq continue to be a powerful force in the Persian Gulf region and a potential bulwark against Iranian fundamentalism or will it be a weakened, even defenseless state? Indeed, will the country exist at all, or rather will hostile neighbors and warring internal factions carve it up along the lines of Lebanon?
"People inside Iraq who discuss these things want to know what will happen after Saddam goes," Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leading figure in the Dawa, the exiled Shiite opposition party, said in an interview here. "We feel the Iraqi people after all this destruction must be given a chance to decide their own fate. The whole question of borders and security and territory is thrown open. We want to know: What is the plan?"
So far, members of the U.S-led coalition fighting Saddam say they are so caught up with defeating him that they have given little thought to Iraq's future. Bush has said it is up to the Iraqi people to decide what kind of government they want to live under. But some analysts warn that kind of approach could prove naive -- that Iraqis will need a lot of financial and military help to rebuild their society after the war.
"If you conduct a campaign that destroys the military capability of Iraq and by definition destroys its ability to defend itself in the short term and damages its economic prospects, then you also have a responsibility for the future of the country," Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East security analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said here.
Among the potential conflicts looming after the war ends is a clash between the allied coalition and Iraqi opponents of Saddam over who will rule.
These opponents point out that the last time Western warplanes bombed Iraq was in the early 1920s, when Britain's fledgling Royal Air Force attacked Shiite and Kurdish tribesmen opposed to British military rule. After these groups were defeated, Britain imposed King Feisal I, considered by the rebels a foreign Sunni monarch, as ruler over an artifical country carved out of the defunct Ottoman empire.
Southern Iraq is the birthplace of Shiism and about 54 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite. Najaf and Karbala, south of Baghdad, were the homes of the first Shiite imam, Ali, who was the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, and Ali's sons, Hasan and Hussein. They remain two of the holiest sites in the Shiite faith.
Nonetheless, since the time of Ottoman rule the country has been under Sunni domination, of which Saddam's Baathist regime is only the latest version. While Saddam opened up many economic and political opportunities for Shiite collaborators, he crushed opposition groups such as the Dawa, executed thousands of Shiites and expelled hundreds of thousands of others.
He also became the protector of Sunni regional interests against Iranian Shiite fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other fragile, Sunni-ruled gulf states poured in billions to pay for his war against Iran.
"Saddam was the pinnacle of the Sunni monopoly of power not only in Iraq but in the entire region," an exiled Shiite businessman said. "He had an instinctive feel for the basic psyche of the Sunnis: that if you keep the Shiites down, they will tolerate anything."
Saddam's Shiite opponents fear that the Saudis hope to replace Saddam with yet another Sunni ruler more pliable than Saddam. The new rulers could be senior military or political figures inside Saddam's regime who decide to depose him or they could be exiles such as former defense minister Ibrahim Daoud, who helped install Saddam's Baath Party in power in 1968 but later fell out with him and fled Iraq.
Either way, critics say, a new Sunni regime could end up using the same kind of police-state tactics Saddam used to repress the Shiite majority. "In a year's time, the United States would find itself selling tear gas to a new Iraqi government," said Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent Iraqi businessman.
A better alternative, these opponents argue, is a democratic state along the lines advocated by the Joint Action Committee, a group formed at a conference in Beirut last month. The committee, a coalition of 16 disparate, exiled political groups, includes Moslem fundamentalists, Kurdish nationalists, pan-Arabists and Communists. It advocates a transitional government "representing all sections of the Iraqi population," followed by free elections in a year or two.
Ultimately, the group hopes, Iraq would be ruled by a popular government that would respect democratic freedoms and seek to heal the wounds left by two decades of Baathist rule.
But critics contend Western-style democracy has never succeeded in the Arab world and predict that the exile groups would quickly fall out, leading to civil war and to the likelihood of an Iranian-style Shiite revolutionary regime that could be anti-Western and a threat to its neighbors and would tilt the region's power balance in Iran's favor.
"The opposition is so divided and so disparate that I can't see them getting their act together," said Dilip Hiro, author of several books on the Iran-Iraq war and regional politics. "The best way of ensuring stability is to keep Iraq in one piece, chastened but run by one strong personality."
The war presents the exiled opposition groups with a painful dilemma. They want to see Saddam ousted and believe the allied forces have a special obligation to evict him from power, because countries such as the gulf states and the West provided much of the financial and military support that shored up his regime and helped build his vast military. At the same time, however, they fear the war will kill thousands of Iraqis and destroy the country's economy.
"Most Iraqis believe Saddam became strong from the support he got from the West," said Hakim of the Dawa. "The people who produced Saddam must remove him -- but without hitting the Iraqi people."
These opponents fear that the longer the war lasts, the more tempting it will be for neighboring states to seize a piece of Iraqi territory. Turkey still claims a right to oil-rich Mosul province, while some in Iran covet the Shiite south and the Shatt al Arab waterway. Kurdish nationalists might try to set up an independent homeland in the north.
Most of the allies say publicly they do not want Iraq dismembered. But the allies also face a dilemma in the war. For years, regional security in the gulf has been seen as a balancing act between Iraq and Iran. Whenever one has been considerably stronger than the other, its neighbors have felt in jeopardy.
The allies are now seeking to restore the balance. But if they render Iraq defenseless, they could leave it and the entire region vulnerable to the Iranians.
The answer, some Western analysts contend, is a long-term international peace-keeping operation to protect Iraq while it recovers. But who would participate? If Western troops are involved, opponents like Hakim warn, Iraqi Arabs will see them as intruders.
But if the peace-keepers are from conservative Arab states, these Iraqis fear the imposition of a new repressive regime. "In the short term, any new regime will be an improvement over Saddam," said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish spokesman. "But there are many people who are frightened of real democracy in Iraq. The question is whether the West will betray its own principles."