Could The Rebels Really Rule?

The rebels who have risen up against Saddam Hussein have two powerful enemies. Saddam is one. The other is history. Theirs is a fractious past, full of vendettas and divisions threatening the very existence of the Iraqi nation - carved out of the old Ottoman Empire by Britain after World War I. King Faisal, installed by London in 1921, found his subjects "unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever."

Does that 70-year-old stereotype still apply today? Saddam's opponents say no. They are on their way to overcoming their differences, they claim, or at least to compromising about them. Kurds, Shiites, dissident members of Saddam's Baath Party, communists and even old monarchists say - all of them - that they want a unified and free Iraq. Uniformly, if vaguely, they espouse democracy as the only path to enduring stability. But their reputations, and history, have caught them in a geopolitical Catch-22.

To gain outside help, they are asked to prove their credentials as leaders, even as democrats. But no one in modern Iraq has ever had the chance. Except for brief flirtations with political freedoms under the monarchy - which ended with the grisly murder of Faisal's heirs in 1958 - the country has been dominated by its Sunni minority and ruled by force of arms. The last two decades under Saddam created what author Samir al-Khalil calls the "Republic of Fear."

The Kurds are the most conspicuous victims of their traditional image. For a good part of the last century, they've been fighting for their own nation. None of Iraq's neighbors - and none of the world's major powers - wanted them to have it. So in the last few years all the major Kurdish groups have changed their tune. Their slogan has been "Democracy for Iraq and autonomy for Kurdistan." Few in Washington believe them. "It's autonomy today, but a separate state tomorrow. We all know that," says one of the administration's senior Middle East analysts. A State Department official who served in Iraq is even more cynical: "It probably sounds callous, but we did the best thing not to get near [the Kurdish revolt]. They're nice people, and they're cute, but they're really just bandits. They spend as much time fighting each other as central authority. They're losers."

Iraq's Shiites, a majority of the population, have a still more onerous reputation to overcome. Before Saddam they were known, especially in southern Iraq, as a collection of feuding tribes. Under the present regime they were often persecuted, and when the Iranian revolution erupted many harked to its call. With help from the Khomeini government, a few resorted to terror against Baghdad. They also attacked those they saw supporting Saddam: the Kuwaitis, Saudis, French and Americans. Members of one group, al-Daawa, were involved in suicide bombings of U.S. embassies, airline hijackings and assassination attempts in the gulf states.

While al-Daawa never had a huge following and has now renounced its old tactics, the taint of terrorism still touches all Iraqi Shiites. Conventional wisdom holds that given power they would automatically be fundamentalist, automatically beholden to Iran. Saddam's relentless repression, meanwhile, has seen to it that few moderate Shiite voices could surface. "Our experience with the Shia is pretty limited," concedes one administration analyst. "I guess that's a consequence of our alienation from the movement for the last 10 years."

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, traditionally the source of its ruling class, has been largely passive through the recent uprisings. Once again, hard intelligence is sparse and Sunni exiles generally are dismissed as men of little credibility. Yet it is in this amorphous group that the administration puts most of its hopes. "You've got to get the Arab Sunnis or it just doesn't count," says one State Department official. "You've got to get that heartland group." President Bush, by calling on members of Saddam's clique or Army officers to overthrow him, is essentially appealing to that traditional Sunni elite. Thus far it is silent.

The broad opposition started to unite only after the gulf crisis began, when it seemed for the first time that there might be real hope of Saddam's ouster. The process has moved quickly, even if it is not complete. Now Saddam's opponents want "to work for the future of Iraq, not the destruction of Iraq," says Safeen Dizayee of the Kurdish Democratic Party. But Washington experts like Christine Moss Helms still maintain that these groups "had years to create a workable agenda and they've not done it. Whatever they say, if they come to power it will be a temporary alliance."

The opposition believes that Saddam will do anything to hold on, given half a chance, and that the U.S. administration has given him just that. "Once the cease-fire is settled, the borders will be shut, the eyes of the world will be less focused and the situation in Iraq is going to go on and on," says al-Khalil. Then, he says, Saddam will "resort to the one language he knows: violence." It will be harder than ever to know who his opponents are and whether they're equipped to rule. They'll be busy just surviving.