WASHINGTON — For a man who had a military noose around his neck at the close of the Gulf war in 1991, Saddam Hussein has demonstrated a surprising knack for self preservation.
The durable Iraqi dictator has outlasted his Gulf war rivals George Bush and Margaret Thatcher. And he has done it by surviving international condemnation, laser-guided bombs, debilitating economic sanctions, ethnic uprisings, and a string of coup and assassination attempts.
Considered a sponsor of international terrorism and a mercurial nuclear weapon wannabe, Saddam has few friends in the West. Recent Iraqi military moves in Kurdistan and the resulting US missile attacks are again prompting calls for his overthrow.
But Middle East experts caution that the forceful removal of the Iraqi president from power is fraught with pitfalls that could undermine, rather than enhance, US security interests in the region.
It was the same analysis that helped persuade then-President Bush to call off Operation Desert Storm after only 100 hours of combat. It is a decision that has been second-guessed ever since.
"The judgment at the time was that we will pursue other means to overthrow Saddam Hussein, always with the realization that the next guy may not be so bad but could be worse," says William Taylor, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
The primary concern then, as among many experts now, is that there is no clear alternative to Saddam able to step into office and hold neighboring Iran in check.
If the Iraqi president is overthrown, his military crushed, and his Baath Party apparatus dismantled, the country might disintegrate, with a pro-Iranian Shia state emerging in southern Iraq.
Muslim power puzzle
This is a key concern of leaders in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states who have long battled to keep their own Shia populations under control.
The emergence of a Shia theocracy in Iraq mirroring the Islamic government in Iran might only encourage more mischief by the Arab Shia in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
Both Turkey and Iran hold similar concerns about the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq's northern region. Turkish and Iranian leaders worry that the emergence of a de facto Kurdish state could spark unrest among their own Kurdish populations.
Middle East experts say that if the US wants to oust Saddam it should first be certain that whoever replaces him will be a force for stability.
The problem, they say, is that there are no obvious candidates. The exiled Iraqi opposition is deeply divided, and whatever opposition remains within Iraq is suffering the combined effects of Saddam's ruthless security forces and the lingering economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 1990.
Many analysts say that the UN embargo hurts the Iraqi population far more than Saddam, who uses his scarce resources to maintain his grip on power while the rest of his country starves.
"We shouldn't chase the illusion of overthrowing Saddam by squeezing the Iraqi people," says R. K. Ramazani, a Gulf expert and professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
"We don't have to live with Saddam Hussein, but what are the alternatives?" Ramazani asks. "Are the policies that we are pursuing going to achieve the goals we are seeking?"
Whether by default or design, Saddam has remained in power. Some analysts suggest that living with a weakened Saddam is better than facing the uncertainty of what might happen in a post-Saddam Iraq.
"A weakened regime, however distasteful, is preferable to an unknown," says Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Study of the Global South at American University in Washington and a former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations.
Mr. Maksoud says US-backed efforts to punish Iraqi society for the transgressions of Saddam are helping to ensure that no credible alternative to Saddam emerges. "This is the basic flaw in the United States policy on Iraq, which many in the [former Gulf war] coalition are beginning to realize," he says.
If not Saddam, who?
Even if there was a credible, democratic alternative to Saddam, it remains unclear whether that alternative would be acceptable to the conservative royal families of Arabia.
"We didn't go to war [in Kuwait] to restore democracy,'' says Ahmed Hashim, a Middle East expert at CSIS. "We had allies that frankly weren't prepared to see democracy come to any major regional power."
The goal in the Gulf war was to push Iraqi forces from Kuwait and restore the ruling Al-Sabah family to power.
To the Saudi royal family, status quo remains the preferred course of action, analysts say.
Just as a Shia enclave in Iraq might stir up Islamic unrest in Saudi Arabia, so too might a democratic Arab state on the kingdom's northern border stir up political unrest among its large population of Western-educated technocrats.