As the conflict in the Persian Gulf neared a conclusion, there were increasing suggestions that Saddam Hussein would have to be removed to insure stability in the region. Then, on Friday, there were rumors Mr. Hussein would step down and seek asylum in Algeria.
Ironically, the question of whether Mr. Hussein stays or goes is moot.
In Iraqi domestic politics he has already been marginalized. Iraqis view both the allied coalition and Mr. Hussein as culpable in destroying the infrastructure of Iraq and risking itsterritorial integrity. Therefore, while the West will not be seen as a liberator, Mr. Hussein's control will be tenuous. The energies and revenues of the state will for the next five years or more have to be devoted to basic, but essential, reconstruction. At least three out of six bridges in Baghdad and twenty-five bridges over the Euphrates, for example, have been destroyed, according to U.S. military figures.
Even within the larger Arab and Islamic worlds, this is true. Their governments uniformly condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Arab goverments particularly resent the polarization of their region into so-called "have" and "have-not" states, which promises to leave an enduring and bitter legacy.
At the same time, however, Mr. Hussein has already left his mark on what is best described as "street politics." Excepting only in the oil-rich or "have" states of the lower Persian Gulf, he has become a symbol of anti-Americanism, a focal point to question the moral-ethical content of the New World Order.
When the full extent of Iraqi casualties and infrastructural damage become known, anti-American antipathies will intensify, particularly if economic sanctions or harsh measures remain in place. Recent references to America as a "colonial" power and increasing debate over coalition goals (even in non-Arab Islamic countries, such as Turkey and Pakistan), indicate the process is already underway. It may well occur even if -- or especially if -- Mr. Hussein is ousted or killed.
Amid the highly emotive environment which has demonized Saddam Hussein, there has been speculation about what kind of government the American-led coalition would like installed in Iraq. Yet, there has been little consideration about the political mine fields.
There has been renewed interest, for example, in exiled Iraqi opposition groups which, numbering about twenty, have limited memberships.
Some, such as a few disgruntled ex-military officers, have been exiled for decades. Others, such as Kurdish groups, are deeply divided among themselves and present a threat to Iran and Turkey, which are concerned about instability arising from their own Kurdish populations. Still others, such as the Da'wa, have been associated with terrorist activities in Kuwait and Lebanon and against United States facilities. There is also a serious danger that some, reportedly supported by states such as Iran ** and Saudi Arabia, will have an agenda of their own. Iran has already indicated that it wants to see an Islamic government in Baghdad. There are long-term, unforeseeable problems down this road.
Temporarily submerging their differences, the vast disparity about means and ends inevitably ensures fragmentation in their present alliance. Further, because Iraq is one of the most pluralistic states in the region, successful Iraqi leaderships cannot be seen to be advocates of a single, insular interest group. They must appeal to numerous ethnic, linguistic, social -- and religious groups.
Within Iraq itself, there are only two plausible leadership alternatives at present.
The first is some other member of the Baath Party. Mr. Hussein's increasing isolation during the last several years and his reliance on family members may mean that other members of the Revolutionary Command Council itself remain viable candidates.
Contrary to Western perceptions, some of these individuals are respected despite their association with Mr. Hussein. One, as an example, is an American-educated economist who has had broad experience in domestic and foreign affairs and is personally well regarded. The fact that the Baath Party is explicitly civilian may also give them a broader base of support than anticipated.
The second credible alternative is the military. Iraqi officers nominally belong to the Baath Party, but serious frictions have been known to exist between them. During the course of the Iran-Iraq war, many officers gained prestige within their own rank and among their men. While these officers may privately oppose the Baath Party, they are unequivocally pro-Iraqi. It is their secular outlook and obvious base of support to form a central government that lends them broad public support.
In the post-war period, the Bush administration will face the most severe tests not only to the unity of colition forces, but to the establishment of regional security. By targeting Iraqi ground forces, the United States may have compounded its problems. (There are reports that Iraqi military casualties may have been as much as 200,000.) If Mr. Hussein remains in power, the military could be so devastated, materially and in morale, that is is unable to strike Mr. Hussein's regime, ensure protection of Iraqi minorities and territorial integrity of the state. Support for opposition groups with great ambitions, untried leadership abilities, and known antipathies to any community but their own will invetiably create human suffering and potential political-military quagmires beyond the borders of Iraq and Kuwait.
Finally, perhaps most important, the Bush administration confronts a dilemma. During the crisis, it called for the return of the "legitimate" government to Kuwait. While the term has admittedly never been defined, any attempt by a foreign, Western power to impose -- by armed force or by diplomatic and economic pressure -- a government in Iraq supportive of Western interests, will probably be doomed to failure.
The historical memory in the region of the post-World War I colonial-mandate period remains embedded in modern political dialogue. Indeed, the past seven decades chronicle attempts by Arab states to obtain independence and remove colonial-installed governments.
When the dust settles, the allied coalition will have its plate full of economic and political challenges. The United States in particular will have to move quickly to minimize growing anti-American sentiment in both the Arab and Islamic worlds. Hopefully, one aspect of this policy will be the wisdom to allow Iraqis to sort out their own house.
Christine Helms is a Middle East analyst who has written books on Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Her most recent book is "Arabism and Islam: Stateless Nations and Nationless States."