After Saddam: A Power Vacuum May Give Washington Pause

The Iraqi exile community is buzzing in anticipation. On July 12, former military officers gathered in an auditorium in London to hear each other denounce Saddam Hussein. Looking on were aides to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Now, Iraqi opposition leaders are preparing to go to Washington for sessions with U.S. officials in mid-August. "These meetings are different from previous ones because the U.S. is getting ready to take action in Iraq," says Ahmed Chalabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization linking opposition groups.

Most Arab leaders continue to argue against an attack on Saddam Hussein. And analysts warn that a war might tip the fragile U.S. economy into recession. But many observers agree that an effort to depose Saddam is in the cards. George W. Bush will look foolish if he doesn't follow through on his threats of "regime change." And Saddam is playing into the hands of U.S. hardliners by not letting U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq. "I think the U.S. has decided for its own reasons that Saddam is a threat that it cannot live with," says Chalabi, an ex-banker based in London.

Few doubt the U.S. will prevail in an all-out military campaign. The key question is how costly such an effort will be and where will it lead. Much depends on how much help the U.S. can muster from the Iraqi military and civilians in overthrowing Saddam and in running the country. Europeans and neighboring countries worry that replacing Saddam could lead to instability or the rise of an equally menacing strongman. "There has been little political preparation for the inevitable negative reaction in the region and for the follow-on inside Iraq," says a Western diplomat in the Persian Gulf area.

U.S. government officials say the upcoming meetings with the Iraqi opposition are intended to address such fears. The U.S. is trying to encourage brainstorming on how Iraq should be governed after Saddam. But Iraq is a notoriously fractious country, and, for now, there is no leader who can command the whole nation's loyalty. Among the guests invited to Washington is a London-based member of the deposed Iraqi royal family, Sharif Ali bin Al Hussein. But other exiles are skeptical about whether the royals, who were ousted in a bloody coup in 1958, have much appeal for contemporary Iraqis.

Indeed, intramural rivalry is running strong. There is friction, for instance, between Chalabi and Ayad Allawi, a former senior member of Saddam's Baath Party who left Iraq in the 1970s and heads the Iraqi National Accord, a longstanding dissident group. Chalabi, a political liberal, has admirers in Washington, but Allawi's group is believed to have better connections to the Baath Party and the Iraqi military. Both men, who say they favor a democratic Iraq, are invited to meet U.S. officials, along with Shiite and Kurdish representatives. That has some exiles hopeful the opposition leaders will bury their differences. "This could be the beginning of not only getting rid of Saddam but building a stable Iraq," says Ghassan Attiyah, editor of Iraqi File, a London-based periodical.

It's far from clear how much impact these machinations can have on people in Iraq. Analysts think it's unlikely that the Iraqi military or other groups will risk death to move against Saddam unless they know the U.S. stands behind them. So the U.S. may have to do most of the job itself. "The U.S. has to be willing to invade the country, remove the regime, sit in occupation in Baghdad, and prop up a puppet," says Raad Alkadiri, an Iraq specialist at PFC, a Washington-based energy consultancy. That prospect, along with the negative economic fallout from war, means there will be plenty more talk before there's action.

By Stanley Reed in London

Edited by Rose Brady

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