INTERNATIONAL

After Saddam who?

Kuwait Feb. 15. Some West Asian countries appear to have reservations over reports that the U.S. will try to topple the regime of the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, in the not too distant future. The Kuwaitis, on the other hand, hope that Mr. Hussein will be ousted and believe that he will be.

If the Afghan campaign is an indicator of the action that the U.S. may take against the States that its President, George W. Bush, described as being part of an "axis of evil", then the first question that arises is whether Washington has found an Iraqi equivalent of the Northern Alliance. A disparate opposition group called the Iraqi National Congress has been the recipient of some financial aid. This group claims some support among the Sunni Arabs in central Iraq. But hardly anyone, not even the most optimistic anti-Iraq Kuwaiti, believes that the INC has the capacity to replicate the role of the Northern Alliance. An indication of what the U.S. thinks of the INC's influence is given by the fact that the aid earmarked for this grouping does not include a military component.

Two Kurdish groups that control territory in the north of Iraq are considered more likely to play the role of the Northern Alliance. These groups are armed and they control territory free of the Iraqi military. They therefore do provide a launch pad quite similar to what the Northern Alliance controlled territory provided for the U.S. in the anti-Taliban campaign. The problem with using the Kurds is that Turkey, a close U.S. ally, will not like the anti-Saddam campaign to end in a situation where the Kurdish areas break off from Iraq.

If they do, then it could accelerate the drive for independence among the Kurds in Turkey. However, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr. Bulent Ecevit, recently visited the U.S. and the consensus here is that some decision may have been taken on the Iraqi situation. Turkey has good relations with the two Iraqi Kurd groups and if these two groups can be persuaded by the U.S. to settle for some form of autonomy with Iraq, Turkey may have little qualms about toppling Mr. Hussein.

Some U.S. officials have also spoken about the possibility of using the Shias in the south of Iraq as the local allies. But the strongest Shia group is affiliated with Iran and U.S.-Iranian relations are currently on a downslide after Mr. Bush named the Government in Teheran in the "axis of evil" as well. Unless this was some sort of pressure tactic to get Iran to co-operate on the Iraq front it is unclear as to how this particular alternative will come into play.

There has not been much talk of the role that the Bedouin tribes in the western parts of Iraq could play. The regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been wooing these tribes for many years and the tribesmen are recruited in the armies of both kingdoms. While Jordan's King Abdullah has indicated that he is not opposed to toppling Mr. Hussein, Saudi Arabia has no reason to hold back provided Mr. Hussein is the target of any U.S. campaign.

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