Oust Saddam?

Saddam Hussein still can't resist tweaking the nose of the world's policemen. Even as UN arms inspectors resume their work of trying to verify that Baghdad's arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is no more, Saddam's men are hammering the off-limits signs back up.

This time it's documents that would confirm the weaponry Iraq had on hand in the late 1980s. The Iraqi government says this information would breach the country's security. But that seems an odd argument for a country facing official and intensive international scrutiny - to say nothing of the threat of cruise missiles and bombs if noncooperation persists.

The documents must be produced, and the inspection process should move forward. That's the only path toward an end to the UN sanctions that have reduced Iraq's economy to a rusted-out wreck.

The removal of those sanctions is Saddam's stated goal, but the suspicion remains strong that his underlying goal is unchanged from the pre-Gulf War glory days - a military capable of dominating the Gulf region and its oil lode.

Intransigence with arms inspectors, as well as reports of continuing Iraqi efforts to smuggle in weapons technology from abroad, only bolster these suspicions.

This sense that Saddam remains Saddam feeds a resurgent current in Western policy toward Iraq - the hope that the resilient dictator can be toppled from within. Thus the Iraq Liberation Act, signed last month by President Clinton, which proposes to devote nearly $97 million to the oust-Saddam cause.

Alas, this hope has insecure moorings. Consider:

* The Iraqi opposition groups who yearn to see Saddam go are badly fragmented by philosophical differences and personality clashes. London, a center of Iraqi exile activity, hosts 16 such groups. It's hard to know where to start, or who will lead.

* Populations inside Iraq opposed to Saddam have limited goals and capabilities, and they're cowed by past experience. Most Kurds in the north are more interested in a homeland of their own than a unified Iraq under someone other than Saddam. The Shiites in the south remember all too well the beating they took after a short-lived uprising following the Gulf War.

Elements in the military or the tribal groupings of central Iraq might feel it's time to get rid of Saddam. But who they are is anyone's guess.

* Hussein, despite all the discomfort he's caused his country, retains a viselike grip on Iraqi society. His secret police are everywhere. Opposition is efficiently repressed. Fear rules, inhibiting anyone who might be inclined to plot a change of regime.

Clearly, it's problematic, at best, just what Washington or its prime ally in these matters, London, can do to foment a change in Baghdad. In the background are dark memories of past US attempts to orchestrate changes of regime - the contras in Nicaragua or the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.

Still, assembling the disparate opposition groups might have some long-term value. Perhaps they can move toward a more unified voice. It's a seed, at least, of change and might become part of an eventual transition away from dictatorship.

For the present, nothing is likely to supplant the hard diplomatic and military work already underway. Iraq has again challenged international authority, and that challenge must be met.

Saddam is tenacious. Those inspecting arms facilities, sustaining sanctions, tending alliances - and, yes, keeping forces on alert - have to be even more so.

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