FIVE years ago, President Bush brought the Gulf war to a sudden halt. In liberating Kuwait, the formidable Desert Storm coalition had nearly destroyed the Iraqi Army, once rated fourth-largest in the world. Iraq itself was in shambles from top to bottom.
Guided by a United States Air Force design for bringing an enemy government to its knees by attacking the nation's ''centers of gravity,'' the air operation wrecked roads, bridges, electrical power, water systems, factories, and anything else conceivably connected to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's infrastructure of military forces, security services, and propagandists.
Saddam thrived in the melee. Standing at the center of the bull's-eye, he confirmed his hold on power over the next few months. Saddam claimed a victory just for staying on his feet after taking everything the coalition of his Arab neighbors and their Western friends could throw at him. He fended off the uprising of the Kurds in Iraq's north. He defeated - destroyed - a huge uprising of the Shia in the south.
And, as we gradually came to learn, he exited the war with vastly larger biological and nuclear capabilities than the US had estimated, plus a mobile rocket force we had never defeated.
Now, Saddam is back in the news. What do we make of his latest double play?
The many faces of Saddam
In New York, Saddam's negotiators talk of accepting the United Nations offer of generating humanitarian relief funds by easing the sanctions on Iraqi oil sales, while in Baghdad, two ''dishonored'' family members kill the two returning Kamel brothers along with the defectors' father and another brother. Remarkably, the avengers die in the gunplay themselves. Saddam's daughters manage to divorce the two defectors a day before the family score-settling.
In New York, he's the statesman, trying to protect his people from the structures of the West. In Baghdad, he's the boss with a long, deadly arm.
At home, he's the father, errant daughters back at his side. He's the powerful leader, in control, and here to stay. Or at least that's the image Saddam is marketing.
The truth may be that Saddam is actually quite weak. His dramatic actions should be seen in the context of his struggle to reverse his decline. This is the surprising conclusion we've reached after consulting with several dozen Iraqi specialists and regional experts.
Most important, Saddam knows that his neighbors know he is weak and slipping. Just as nothing succeeds like success, nothing is more weakening than weakness. Saddam's blood is in the water, the sharks are circling, and he is desperately trying to save himself.
According to these views, Saddam's power has been steadily eroding in the five years since the Gulf war. Loyalty in the Army is dwindling. Even the once-formidable Republican Guard divisions may no longer be reliable. With sanctions pinching everything, Army readiness likely has continued to slide.
Refugees report that, instead of recruiting with a ''Be all that you can be'' slogan, the Iraqi government has hauled draft dodgers off to hospitals, where doctors and medical students are forced to cut off the ears and brand the foreheads of the recalcitrants - with the whole horrific spectacle then broadcast on television. Doctors who refuse are shot or go into hiding.
It also appears that the sanctions have so choked off the economy that Saddam himself is strapped, no longer able to provide the extra pay that buys loyalty around so dangerous a man. Reportedly, the internal-security apparatus is reduced to the innermost layer of thugs and special organizations. Visitors note that the government's reach no longer extends much beyond Baghdad and the other major cities.
It may be that the oil-sales negotiations in New York are a last-ditch way of getting money flowing, some of which will be channeled to the inner circle of security.
How to read the defection, return, and demise of the Kamel brothers? Perhaps as a piece of pre-scripted theater to let Saddam display his durability - with a double-cross at the end to reinforce the message.
But the point is not to amuse ourselves with speculations. What we can do is watch the life and death drama in Iraq for signals about the balance of power as Saddam and his neighbors see it.
Preparing for collapse
Jordan's King Hussein is probably the most important of those next-door neighbors. With a long history of ties to Iraq and Iraqis, King Hussein appears to be in the best position to broker a transition should Saddam's regime collapse.
An unbrokered, uncontrolled collapse could be very fast and very dangerous. Remember how East Germany - Army, security forces, party apparatus - disappeared almost overnight. If Saddam felt things were suddenly slipping away, would he lash out with the biological agents or the rockets he likely has kept in hiding?
What do we do as this drama plays out?
First, we should recall that the real drama is not the story of Saddam and his image-management assassinations. Some 20 million Iraqis, well-educated citizens in a country that was a relatively modern, secular nation-state, are hostages to this serial killer. The quickest way to see Saddam's last vestiges of power drop away is to not be taken in by his family theatrics.
We should continue to support Jordan's efforts to lay the groundwork for a transition. If that transition is to lead toward the emergence of a democratic, responsible government, we should send an unmistakable signal to the Iraqi people that if Saddam should suddenly take to his heels or his grave we will be prepared to lift the sanctions rapidly and to help with immediate humanitarian aid.
Iraqis now need liberation as much as the Kuwaitis did five years ago. An army isn't needed. Military threats only lend strength to Saddam. As the Kamel assassinations show, Saddam and his neighbors know he is in trouble. We need to help prepare for his demise. It may come in a few months or a few years, but it is coming.