The big question was, who was working for Saddam Hussein?

Almost certainly, a senior State Department official said, someone among the 300 or so Iraqi exiles who gathered here over the weekend--an eclectic group of leading and not-so-leading opposition figures that included turbaned mullahs, Westernized intellectuals and at least one Kurdish tribesman in baggy pantaloons--was sending detailed reports on the proceedings back to Baghdad.

And that, the official said, was just as it should be.

"I hope he hears exactly what happens," the official said of the gathering, the largest meeting of Iraqi opposition groups since 1992. "We want him to know about it."

It remains to be seen, however, whether Hussein has anything to fear from the assembly at a midtown hotel thousands of miles from the nearest Iraqi border post. True, the exiles emerged from the Sheraton New York with a reconstituted leadership and pledges to heal the rivalries that have splintered their movement since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Beyond that, however, there is recognition in the Clinton administration--and even among some of the exiles themselves--that the opposition is years away from posing a military threat to the Baghdad regime, if it ever will. The goal now, U.S. officials say, is to build a political structure that will serve as a beacon to the Iraqi people and help persuade Iraqi military officers to get rid of Hussein.

"The United States believes that the national transition sought by Iraqis and their neighbors must come from within Iraq," said Thomas Pickering, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, in a speech to the exiles this morning. He pledged, however, that the United States "will actively support you not only until you are free, but also thereafter in rebuilding a new, democratic Iraq."

Reaction from Baghdad was predictable. "We, and all honest people in the world, ridicule the meeting," Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told reporters after opening a trade fair in Baghdad.

The administration's renewed commitment to the opposition--earlier this month, President Clinton authorized the release of $5 million in non-lethal aid and training to the exile groups--coincides with growing criticism of its Iraq policy on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers, in particular, have been swayed by appeals from some exile leaders for an aggressive program of military assistance.

At the same time, the administration is struggling to reestablish the role of the United Nations in overseeing the disarmament of Iraq. U.S. diplomats are scrambling to reach consensus with their Security Council partners on a resolution that would ease economic sanctions against Iraq if Hussein agrees to permit the return of U.N. arms inspectors he ejected last year.

In that context, said Robert H. Pelletreau, the former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, the administration's efforts to buck up the opposition are but "one leg of a multi-leg creature . . . and nowhere near a key feature."

"The opposition," he added, "has yet to show that it really does have some kind of unified status, and it has yet to show that it has any real ability to contribute to changing the regime in Iraq," although "it may have some nuisance value."

Fingering worry beads and conversing, often heatedly, in Arabic into the wee hours Sunday night, delegates elected a 65-person Central Council as well as a seven-member Leadership Council. Besides the familiar crop of London-based exile leaders, participants included a guerrilla commander from the marshes of southern Iraq, dissident members of Hussein's Tikriti clan and a man who was said to have worked as a bodyguard for Hussein's son, Uday.

"We hope that with our display of unity we have given hope to the Iraqi people that their freedom is within reach," said Salah Shaikhly, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress. "Within the next few weeks we will establish a new structure to coordinate all aspects of our program. The main emphasis . . . will be on activities inside Iraq."

But the gathering was not entirely harmonious. Ishan Abdul Aziz, a representative of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, a Sunni Muslim group, complained that the United States was showing favoritism toward Kurdish groups from northern Iraq and Shiite Muslim groups from the south. "There has not been enough attention from the U.S. to the Sunni" of central Iraq, he said. "If you always talk about the south, you will push the Sunnis to be with Saddam Hussein."

Aziz also charged that two of the opposition's dominant figures--Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, and Ahmed Chalabi, an MIT-educated banker and Shiite Muslim--had stacked the Central Council with allies. "Allawi and Chalabi are competing; they both want more control," he said. "When we see something sneaky like this, it does not make us very happy."

Some participants also expressed skepticism about the Clinton administration's support. "So far, it's basically a cosmetic effort," said Nabeel Musawi, 38, who left Baghdad when his father was executed by Hussein's regime in 1981. He eventually landed in northern Iraq, where he ran the INC's political operation until the group was forced out by an Iraqi incursion in September 1996.

"They should support the opposition in effective ways that move the battle against Saddam from the Sheraton in New York to the southern marshes and Kurdistan," he said.

The State Department official said that is not in the cards. "We are not interested in supporting an insurgency against the Iraqi military," the official said, for the simple reason that "if you start an insurgency, you had damn well be ready to back it up" with American military force.

CAPTION: The opposition is years away from being ready to mount a serious challenge to Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials say.