Is it too late for a popular uprising inside Iraq?

Refugees report signs of unrest in Baghdad.

As the drums of a war in Iraq beat ever more loudly, concern grows in some circles that opportunities for a nonviolent solution are being missed.

Could the US take advantage of the first glimmers of public discontent to oust Saddam Hussein and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction at far less cost in blood and treasure? Could US efforts spark a popular uprising like the one that brought down Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000?

"The key is to figure out how to make Iraq ungovernable, and that is doable, starting with expressions of defiance," says Peter Ackerman, who has chronicled a century of nonviolent resistance in his book "A Force More Powerful."

Ackerman says it's not too late. But others are less sanguine. "There has been a huge potential" to foster a democratic opposition to President Hussein, adds Laith Kubba of the Iraqi National Group, a Washington-based group of Iraqi professionals focused on the future of Iraq. "It has all been overlooked."

Indeed, most experts say that the Bush administration is now too far down the road to military intervention in Iraq and too concerned about terrorism to embrace a nonviolent solution that could take years to bear fruit. Iraq has long lacked the ingredients - free speech, civic organizations, opposition political parties - that made popular uprisings successful elsewhere.

"I see only a very small chance" of a democratic resistance germinating under a regime as harshly repressive as Hussein's, says Charles Tripp, an expert on Iraq at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. "People know the price of joining any open defiance. Getting together to try to overthrow the regime would be seen as suicide," he adds.

Only once has Hussein's government been threatened by popular wrath. In 1991, as Iraqi troops withdrew in disarray from Kuwait before a US-led assault, Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the South rose up angrily to take revenge on the regime's officials.

The revolt was bloodily repressed. Iraqis were dismayed when the first President Bush, who had encouraged them to resist, did nothing to help the rebellion. Later, the US, British, and French imposed no-fly zones that allowed the Kurds to establish an autonomous zone.

That fueled "a lot of misgivings" about US intentions, says Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi scholar at the University of London. "Those who took part in the events of 1991 would not move today unless they were certain it was serious," he warns.

Ackerman, however, says the attacks on Iraqi officers were "absolutely the wrong strategy." The uprising just threatened security forces who then became more dependent on Hussein, he says. Ackerman favors a broad civilian campaign of strikes, and other nonviolent methods that could set off a chain reaction and break the fear. In recent weeks, there have been reports of subtle signs of unrest, including antigovernment graffiti appearing on buildings and statues of Hussein.

Ismail Zayer, an Iraqi activist in Holland, recalls a recent protest by vendors at a Baghdad market, demanding an end to rules obliging them to change money at offices owned by Hussein's son Uday. They marched to the Ministry of Trade, he says, "and at least they were not shot."

The regime is so unpopular, he adds, that the security forces do not enter some "no go" areas in Baghdad at night, and some Shiite Muslims have transformed religious festivals in holy cities in ways that show their disgust with the predominantly Sunni Muslim government.

This past October, angry Iraqi men and women staged a brazen demonstration outside government offices in Baghdad, demanding to know the fate of relatives who had failed to emerge from prisons following a general amnesty.

A RECENT report by the International Crisis Group, a foreign-policy think tank, said its researcher in Iraq late last year found Iraqis far more willing than before to discuss their attitudes to the regime. "This fact alone is a strong indication of the regime's diminished ability to instill fear," the report suggested.

Some opponents of Hussein see the imminent threat of a US invasion loosening the regime's grip. "It is helping a lot," says Mr. Zayer. "Security officials don't want to be the people's enemies if the Americans come."

Others, however, worry that US plans are stifling domestic efforts to organize a civic resistance. "People say that if the Americans are coming, why should we bother and sacrifice ourselves?" says Dr. Jabar. "The invasion threat is in a sense a sleeping pill for a popular movement."

How such a popular movement might arise in Iraq, however, is not easy to envision. The ICG report found that "the Iraqi regime's repression has devastated civil society and any autonomous form of political organization. The result is a largely depoliticized and apathetic population."

"The problem is that by showing any form of dissent you go from total conformity to outright defiance" and the risks that entails, says Dr. Tripp.

The US democracy aid groups that helped Yugoslavia and Chile have found no way to work in Iraq. "We would like to work with indigenous democrats, but where would we find them?" wonders Leslie Campbell, Middle East program director for the National Democratic Institute. "There has never seemed to be an opening within Iraq proper."

That, complains Mr. Kubba, is because nobody has looked for one, least of all the Iraqi political opposition in exile. "Saddam holds on to power only by paralyzing the majority of citizens into submission," he says. "Nearly all of Saddam's opponents have bought into the argument that Iraqis cannot liberate themselves... and only a devastating physical force can end his regime."

While the US has encouraged local civic and political opposition groups elsewhere, it has taken a very different tack in Iraq. Since 1991, US efforts have focused primarily on a military solution, or a coup.

A US-backed coup attempt failed in 1996, when Hussein's secret police infiltrated the group of plotters. In 1998, secretary of state, Madeleine Albright testified to Congress that it would be "wrong to create false or unsustainable expectations" about what US support for the divided Iraqi opposition groups could achieve. That fall the US Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, making it official US policy "to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government." Congress earmarked $5 million in aid to Iraqi opposition groups and $5 million for Radio Free Iraq, which began broadcasting in 1998 from Prague.

As American and British military pressure builds, some observers say that the moment is now ripe for a coup originating from within Hussein's ranks. The psychological warfare is already under way: the US is sending e-mail to Iraqi generals suggesting they will face a war-crimes tribunal if they use chemical weapons. It's also dropping leaflets urging Iraqi soldiers not to fire at US aircraft.

"With the Americans poised to invade, the incentive for people in the inner circle to do something about Saddam Hussein gets greater," says Dr. Tripp.

Still, advocates of nonviolent resistance lament a costly war or a putsch by Hussein's cronies need not be the only routes to regime change in Iraq. "Beneath the surface there are strong sentiments pulsating, and they could erupt," argues Jabar. "But people concentrate on military options and forget the fabric of society."

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