President George W. Bush's description of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" was dismissed as macho bluster in many capitals around the world. But inside Iraq, Bush's tough talk has been taken seriously by Saddam Hussein's own Army, judging from the steady stream of Iraqi Army officers who have been switching sides recently. About three weeks ago 36 officers, including a colonel in Saddam's elite special Republican Guard, showed up in neighboring Turkey, according to one former Iraqi general (a State Department source puts the Iraqi officer defection rate at about a half dozen per week). They brought two messages. One was that Saddam, fearing disloyalty, has been executing officers in his supposedly loyal Republican Guard. The second is "we are ready to revolt," says Fawzi al-Shamari, the former Iraqi Army general who has been in contact with the new emigres. Some officers fleeing Iraq may actually be spies, planted by Saddam. But most seem to be trying to get on the winning side.

In Washington last week, Bush signaled more firmly than ever his determination to oust Saddam. "He is a problem," the president said at a press conference. "And we're going to deal with him." On an eight-day tour of Middle Eastern capitals, Vice President Dick Cheney was trying to line up support for U.S. intervention in Iraq. Publicly, Arab leaders raised strong objections. Privately, at least one key Arab leader was more pliable. A knowledgeable source tells NEWSWEEK that King Abdullah of Jordan indicated to Cheney that if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis eased and the United States moved swiftly and decisively against Saddam, then Jordan would raise no objections. Indeed, the Jordanians are already stockpiling fuel to prepare for the disruptions of war.

Behind closed doors in Washington, in secret diplomatic cables and inside CIA safe houses from suburban Virginia to Kurdistan, the search for solutions--for a plan and a leader--is on. As the vice president and the Jordanian king talked over a sumptuous meal of seared scallops, grilled beef and berries with mascarpone at the royal palace in Amman, the hard question about overthrowing Saddam was not if, but how and when. And just as vexing: who would replace Saddam? According to the knowledgeable source, Abdullah was contemptuous of Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, which has the highest profile of the exile opposition groups. Abdullah's scorn for Chalabi is widely shared in the United States government. The elegant, London-based former banker is popular among top civilian aides at the Defense Department, but he is widely derided as an ineffectual showboat just about everywhere else in the U.S. national-security establishment.

At the CIA, State Department and among the uniformed military, specialists are trying to find the proverbial Man on a White Horse, a respected military officer who can ride in, take control and unite Iraq's fractious tribes and religious groups. Mythology is sometimes more powerful than history: the last general who successfully returned from exile to restore his nation to greatness was Charles de Gaulle in France--more than 50 years ago. Still, the United States will need some kind of military strongman to foment a coup, or head a rebel army that could work alongside U.S. forces, or run the Iraqi military after Saddam is gone. There are a number of former high-ranking officers from Saddam's Army who are waiting in the wings and deserve to be taken seriously. But interviews with five of the most prominently mentioned Iraqi ex-generals, reached by NEWSWEEK at their homes in Europe and northern Virginia, raised questions about their readiness, willingness and fitness to lead.

The good news is that the generals are all very experienced war fighters. The bad news is the way they fought--sometimes, with chemical weapons. Nizar al-Khazraji, for instance, has impressive credentials: a four-star general, he was the top commander of the Iraqi Army from 1980 until 1991. He led the Army through the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, though he says he was sidelined because he didn't support that adventure. Sitting in his apartment in the town of Soloe on the North Sea outside Copenhagen, al-Khazraji, 64, says he has no doubt that the Iraqi military is ready to rise up against Saddam. All it will take is a lot of American firepower, carefully targeted, and some organizing by military exiles like himself who have contact with serving Iraqi officers back home. "And then it will snowball," he says. How can he be so sure? "I was the chief of my Army and I know my men very well," he says, puffing on a cigarette.

Al-Khazraji could be the man to lead them again. But there's at least one catch: the Danish government is investigating the former Iraqi general for possible war crimes. It is trying to determine if al-Khazraji ordered poison-gas attacks that killed 5,000 Kurds in northern Iraq in 1988. Al-Khazraji bristles at the charges. He says he's the victim of a put-up job by Saddam loyalists among the Kurds. In fact, he claims, the chemical-warfare attacks against the Kurds were run by Saddam's secret military intelligence.

As it turns out, the head of that intelligence unit, Maj. Gen. Wafiq al-Samarrai, is another contender to lead the revolt against Saddam. Al-Samarrai and other generals fled in the mid-1990s, when Saddam began to suspect them of plotting against him. (A CIA-backed uprising failed in 1996.) Suspected plotters understood that entire families to the third generation could be killed for suspicion of lesser offenses by a single relative. Al-Samarrai now lives in north London, where he was recently approached by a delegation of U.S. State Department officials. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, al-Samarrai appeared skeptical about an exile-led revolt by the Army: "This is nonsense, mounting an operation from outside by exiles." Al-Samarrai, ever the spook, says he is in favor of a "quick covert operation," run by the CIA, to eliminate Saddam. Once Saddam is gone, he says, then the exiles can move in and set up a new regime.

A third general contacted by NEWSWEEK, Mahdi al-Duleimi, believes that a combination of rebel troops and U.S. air power can work to take down Saddam, much as the combination of Northern Alliance ground troops and American warplanes dropping precision-guided weapons drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Sitting with his wife and daughter in a tiny apartment in the German city of Wuppertal, al-Duleimi unfolded a large map of Iraq on his coffee table. He pointed to the locations of the headquarters of Saddam's three defensive corps in the north. The first step, explained al-Duleimi, is to build up opposition forces outside these headquarters. The rebels, mostly armed Kurds already in the area and some returning exiles, would foment unrest among Iraqi units and encourage defections. Provoked, the Iraqis would attack--and U.S. air power would pounce on their massed forces. The air war would go after Saddam himself and other regional headquarters, encouraging units farther down the chain of command to revolt. Al-Duleimi claims his plan has won high marks in Washington. "The time frame is in months, not in years," he says. "We can't wait a long time, we have to do it very fast." Al-Duleimi, 62, appears eager, confident. He says he's looking forward to returning with the whole family to Baghdad. "Not me, no way," interjects his 17-year-old daughter, Sama. In exile since 1996, she looks and acts like a German teenager. "As long as you're underage, you'll have to do what I say," says her father.

If al-Duleimi or some other general marches into Baghdad, what is to guarantee that they won't just seize Saddam's weapons of mass destruction--and keep them? As an Iraqi general in the Iran-Iraq War, al-Duleimi commanded the Third Corps in Basra at a time when the Iranians accused the Iraqis of using chemical gas on the southern front. Al-Duleimi maintainsthat it was the Fourth Corps that used the chemical weapons, not him. Although he headed the armed forces scientific and technical department, he denies any involvement in weapons of mass destruction programs.

One general interviewed by NEWSWEEK made no bones about his use of chemical weapons. General al-Shamari commanded nine divisions in the Iran-Iraq War before he defected in 1986. (Now 56, he runs a small restaurant in northern Virginia.) He says he carried out Saddam's orders to gas the Iranians, firing chemical weapons from howitzers. The impact was devastating. "It created a state of chaos," said al-Shamari. Given that he was miles from the target, how did he know that? From U.S. intelligence. "We got information from American satellites," said al-Shamari. (A former CIA official confirmed that the United States, which was backing Iraq against Iran, provided intelligence to the Iraqis. "Included in that, I'm sure, would have been some feedback, intended or unintended, to the Iraqis on their use of chemical warfare," said the official.)

Al-Shamari's strategy to take down Saddam would be to run a guerrilla war. He would attack bridges and roads to freeze Saddam's Republican Guard in place, then jam his communications while targeting the Iraqi populace with an aggressive propaganda campaign. "You must make people unafraid of him. Right now he acts like a king in a palace surrounded by a strong fence and stray dogs. If you want to reach Saddam Hussein, the question is: how do I deal with those dogs? Some, you poison. Some, you give a sleeping potion. Some, you don't deal with." But al-Shamari says that so far he has had no discussions with U.S. officials. "Iraqis and Americans must plan jointly. This has not happened yet."

Yet another Iraqi ex-general interviewed by NEWSWEEK, Najib al-Salhi, says he could bring down Saddam without the aid of any U.S. ground troops. He would stage a three-pronged infantry assault on Baghdad from Kurdistan in the north, Kuwait in the south and, if possible, Jordan from the west. "Give us a chance to train our own force," he says. Al-Salhi, 50, who has run an exile group called the Free Officers Movement since 1996, claims he can easily raise 30,000 fighters. He keenly appreciates the risks of defying the regime. Al-Salhi was operating out of Jordan in 2000 when he received a package at his home. Inside was a note from Iraqi intelligence. "We've been tracking you down," it said. "We know you are very active. We have captured some of your cells in Iraq." The package included a videocassette. It showed an Iraqi intelligence officer raping an immediate member of al-Salhi's family.

Saddam's ruthless security service has not lost its bite. He is protected by a particularly fearsome palace guard, the 999 Unit. But his Army, while large--some 400,000 troops--is weak. After Saddam's supposedly vaunted Republican Guard put up less than a do-or-die defense in the 1991 gulf war, Saddam created a special Republican Guard, whose 16 divisions are dedicated to the defense of Baghdad. The now ordinary Republican Guard has been plagued by defections. Walid (not his real name) is a 36-year-old captain in the Republican Guard who ran away into Kurdish territory. Of his nine fellow officers in a Guard battalion, all were against the regime, he says--though months passed before they dared whisper their seditious thoughts in the officers' mess. "The only people who still support the regime are those who have a financial interest or an official position," says Walid, who has a Ph.D. in engineering. "That's about 2 percent of the population."

Walid's experience, however, shows the difficulty of uniting the other 98 percent. Walid is ready to join an opposition force in Kurdistan. But he says he was coldly received when he defected. Checking into a hotel, he was arrested and kept with common criminals in a communal cell for five months. He has since found a warmer welcome with a different Kurdish faction.

Iraq is badly divided by tribes and sects. Most of the generals who would like to replace Saddam are, like him, Sunni Muslims. But about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shiites. (The Sunnis account for roughly 20 percent, the Kurds 15 percent.) While the INC's Chalabi may be far from the ideal unifying figure, he has about as much claim as anyone to being able to build coalitions. One thing is clear: the Bush administration is going to have to work hard to bring everyone together. Before another year passes, it's likely that American soldiers, spies and diplomats will be playing hardball, making payoffs, sliding around in the swamps of local Iraqi politics and possibly engaging in real combat.