Regime change without war?

World leaders are exploring ideas for exiling Hussein - and the rest of his regime - and reforming Iraq.

An Iraq without Saddam Hussein, but getting there without a war - it's the idea that won't go away.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other administration figures are touting Mr. Hussein's exile as one way to avoid war. Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders are making overtures to Iraq about such a scenario. Word has it that even President Bush has broached the idea with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Yet even as most Hussein experts doubt that the Iraqi leader would ever agree to leave voluntarily the country he has ruled for more than two decades, the idea retains life for two reasons: It would spare the Iraqi people a devastating war and the region a period of destabilization, something Arab leaders especially are keen to avoid.

Ideas ranging from forcing Hussein's exile to ways of fomenting an uprising among his lieutenants are among the points to be discussed when the region's powerhouses meet in Turkey this week. The purpose of the summit is to discuss how, in the face of American determination to see Hussein removed from power, to avoid a war.

But the idea of exile also raises questions about regime change in Iraq - and how much change in Hussein's regime will be necessary for the US and the Iraqi opposition to consider it a success.

"We want regime change, not just for Saddam to leave the country," says Talib Aziz Alhamdani, a founding member of the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization for opposition groups. "We don't want a situation where you finish off Hitler, but you leave the Nazis in control."

In Iraq's case, that means that in addition to Hussein, a certain number of his top advisers and supporters would have to leave the country. At the same time, the Baath Party, which brought Hussein to power and has provided the structure for his political longevity, would have to be dismantled and forbidden from participating in Iraq's reformation.

Without that, Iraq experts and opposition leaders say, Hussein could too easily continue to rule the country, much the way a drug lord runs his criminal empire from prison.

"Saddam has created a party state, and as party states go, one that is more fascist than communist, but as such you need to dismantle it, not just decapitate it," says Joshua Muravchik, an expert in democratization at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington.

Immunity deal?

But even though US officials talk about Hussein and his power structure opting to leave Iraq, they have been quieter about the chances of offering immunity from trial in an international tribunal - something Iraqis say would be essential for Hussein to consider leaving. But on Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld indicated for the first time that the US might be agreeable to this sort of plan

Still, many experts say that the deeper question behind the exile discussion is, how much regime change is enough?

The AEI's Mr. Muravchik says the problems of Iraq's disarmament and regime change are so closely intertwined that it can't simply be a question of removing Hussein from the premises. "It's really the spirit of this regime that is the biggest impediment to disarmament," he says, "so what you need to see in [Hussein's place] is a regime that doesn't want weapons of mass destruction, and doesn't have the imperial interests so destabilizing to the region."

Recently, the term "de-Baathification" - modeled after the "deNazification" of postwar Germany - has emerged as a catchall for the kind of top-down reformation many experts say Iraq will need. But some Iraqis warn that "de-Baathification" is also a "code word" for a certain hard-line vision of Iraq's post-Hussein reform that could open the way to revenge and "social purification."

"We have to be careful with 'de-Baathification.' It could be used to go too far," says Laith Kubba, an Iraqi dissident and specialist in Islam and democracy at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. He notes that the Baath Party is only one of Iraq's institutions - along with the military, security agencies, and the courts - that Hussein has used to maintain power.

And while he agrees that the party's name is now so associated with Hussein that it would have to be banned, he says the ideals it originally stood for in the 1940s and '50's - such as Arab nationalism - "attracted a lot of people" and can't be arbitrarily ruled out.

The party has about 1.5 million members, most of whom were required to join for work or for entrance to a particular university. Some Iraqis maintain that the party's top bureaucracy includes about 50,000 members who should be denied any role in future elections.

Power vacuum

But Mr. Alhamdani says the Hussein regime is so dependent on one man that he is confident "the whole structure will collapse when he is gone. The vacuum his departure creates could lead to killings and mob rule if there is no one to control it, but we hope it won't be like [that] if the American forces are there."

Still, such worries - about the country's stability when Hussein falls, or US concerns about how disarmament will be assured under something less than an occupation - lead some experts to the idea that a war might actually be a more easily managed means of disarming and reforming Iraq.

"I'm not advocating war as the best way to change a country, but you can see that in this case, it is a much more clear-cut plan of action, even with the human cost," says AEI's Muravchik. "You know where you're going and how to get there."

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