Because Iraq's population consists of three disparate peoples forced together after World War I, the biggest challenge after Saddam Hussein's departure, analysts say, would be keeping the nation together.
The Bush administration says it is dedicated to maintaining the "territorial integrity" of Iraq. But that integrity hasn't existed for a decade, as up to 5 million Kurds in the north have established their own government, protected by the U.S.-mandated "no-fly zone," and experts wonder how willing the Kurds would be to accept rule from Baghdad again.
Numerous other groups also would vie for primacy: Waiting in exile are no fewer than two Kurdistan groups, two Muslim Shiite parties, a pro-monarchist Sunni Muslim group and another representing disenfranchised military officers.
"The only thing that unites the Iraqi opposition is being opposed to Saddam Hussein," says R.K. Ramazani, a Middle East expert at the University of Virginia. "Once Saddam is out of the picture, they'll be at each other's throat."
If war breaks out, Kurds could be expected to rush into the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a traditionally Kurdish area with vast oil fields that Saddam controls. Since oil-is-money-is-power in Iraq, this scenario has U.S. officials so worried that the first mission of American troops would be to protect the oil fields, not only from Saddam's attempts to destroy them, but also from Kurdish attempts to grab them.
Still, it may be hard to stop the Kurds. "A lot of angry Kurds out there have been evicted from their homes," says Kani Xulam of the American Kurdish Information Network. "Their visceral reaction will be to get back to their homes," in cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk, a move that will likely be resisted by the Arabs who live there now.
Ramazani thinks there also could be a major revolt from the southern Shiites, who make up more than half of Iraq's population but have little say in Saddam's Sunni-dominated hierarchy.
The reported massacre of thousands of Shiites in the early 1990s and the destruction of Shiite marsh homelands caused much bitterness, says Ramazani. The once-fertile marshes are now an arid desert, and up to 250,000 Shiites have had to find new homes. As many as 100,000 may have fled into Iran, waiting for Saddam's downfall before coming back.
The situation is so serious that recently, at Saddam's urging, Shiite religious leaders in the south signed a letter in blood pledging support for the Iraqi ruler. Ramazani thinks the vow will be short-lived, once war begins. "They can never forget all the people Hussein killed," he says.
Most experts agree on the probable result of one scenario the Bush administration has advocated: An internal coup that topples Saddam would lead to a new ruler very much like him, a military strongman who would work vigorously, perhaps violently, to keep the country together.
Charles Tripp, author of "A History of Iraq," points out that not once in its lengthy history, stretching back to four millennia before the birth of Christ, has the region had a true multiparty democracy.
The kings the British installed after 1920 were dominated by Britain or their own military, and the governments that came to power after a 1958 coup were run by dictators who never hesitated to crush any hints of rebellion by Kurds, Shiites or others.
Saddam rose through the ranks of the Baath Party, which came to power in 1968, and can still count on its omnipresent party structure, with a party group mirroring every government agency, much like Stalin's Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
Experts agree that any profound change in Iraq would require dismantling the Baath Party, but such a massive change might require someone as strong-willed as Saddam to pull off.
"But there are variations on this dictatorship," adds Tripp, "You might get one more liberal, one that doesn't torture and gas."
Clearly, the international community will work strenuously to keep Iraq together.
Even now, Turkey is so fearful of an independent Kurdish state that it has 12,000 troops camped inside northern Iraq, waiting to stop Kurds from taking Kirkuk.
Syria and Iran, each with Kurdish minorities, also don't want an independent Kurdistan, fearing their own groups might revolt. Meanwhile, Arabs in the Persian Gulf fear that an independent Shiite state in southern Iraq would draw in Iranian Shiites, who would threaten the Persian Gulf's balance of power.
"Iraq is an artificial state," says Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East during the Reagan years, "but its borders are now considered sacrosanct in the Arab world."
Some Kurds are so in favor of a homeland that they are even willing to accept Saddam in Baghdad. "Absolutely," says Xulam, who has demonstrated for peace in Washington. "Kurds have never had it so good. There are Kurds who pray for Saddam's longevity."
Others are more hopeful that a peaceful transition that would benefit all Iraqis is possible.
Tripp points out that even within Iraq there will be forces for unity: "Remember, the city with the largest number of Kurds is Baghdad."
What's more, in many places, Shiites and Sunnis live quietly side-by-side and considerable intermarriage has taken place.
"It certainly won't be an easy task, but it's not an impossible one," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. "It cannot be done without assistance from the European Union and the United Nations, but look what was done in Afghanistan. That was a mess, too."
Everyone agrees that if the United States wants to truly change Iraq, the key ingredient will be time. "It would have to be a very sustained and prolonged intervention," says Tripp, "so that the country doesn't lapse into warfare or lead to the emergence of another dictator."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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