Iraq's fractious opposition groups are plotting ways to topple what they hope will be a weakened Saddam Hussein if he survives an attack to force him to give up Kuwait.
But some Middle East analysts believe that if the Iraqi dictator is ousted or killed, Iraq would be plunged into chaos.Others believe that under international supervision, a democratic government could be established to preserve order. Even so, a crippled Iraq would face a period of turbulence.
"One may find that there's a vacuum at the center in Iraq, which would lead to a breakdown of authority," said analyst Philip Robins of London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
"Total chaos could not be ruled out," he said. "A lot depends on how he goes and who perpetrates his demise."
Robins is among those who believe Saddam's "most likely threat would come from within his immediate circles, whether that be the military or the intelligence apparatus or civilian circles."
Western analysts in Baghdad have said Iraq's army is showing signs of disorder because of supply problems, purges of high-ranking officers, sinking morale and desertions.
Analysts familiar with Iraq's military machine said the recent surprise replacement of the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji, indicated opposition to the strategy of holding on to Kuwait.
There is believed to be significant discontent because Saddam conceded to Iran's demands for a final peace in their 1980-88 war. Saddam made the concessions shortly after he invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, and in effect relinquished gains made in the war with Iran.
The new chief of staff, Gen. Hussein Rashid, was commander of the elite Republican Guard. But some analysts believe even the current situation might not be safe for Saddam."The rest of the army may be neutralized," said Bernard Trainor, a former U.S. Marine general who has made several visits to Iraq.
"But the Republican Guards could turn against him if he takes them down the road to national suicide," said Trainor, now head of the national security program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
The Iraqi opposition groups operate outside the country, and they are trying to prepare for the future even if there is no military action.
For more than a month, they've been meeting in Syria to "reunite the Iraqi opposition, which might overthrow the Iraqi regime even without war," said Mohammed Bakir Hakim, head of the Tehran-based Iraqi Revolutionary Supreme Council.
Syria, ruled by a wing of the Baath Socialist Party that has long been at odds with rival Baathists in Baghdad, is sponsoring the Damascus conference.
Robins said the meeting underscores how the opposition groups are trying to overcome differences.
Still, "there's little basis of support for any of the groups in Iraq" and no strong individual to fill Saddam's shoes, he said.
The two dozen opposition groups fall into four major categories: Arab nationalists, leftists, Kurds and Islamists.
"We want a democratic government, to have a free election, and the Kurds should be represented in the government genuinely," said Hoshyir Zebari, the London-based spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "Most likely, you would find a coalition government."
He said the West has been ambiguous in its strategy.
"Is it to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait? Or is it to depose him?" Zebari asked. He said that getting rid of Saddam "is the only way peace could prevail in the region."
President Bush strongly hinted last week during a visit to Saudi Arabia that destroying Saddam's military might is his prime objective.
He told U.S. troops Thursday that their mission was marked by a "real sense of urgency" because of Iraq's drive to achieve nuclear weapons capability. If that development were left unchecked, Saddam would remain a great threat, Bush said.
If Saddam goes, there is the danger of a clash between the opposition groups, whose fractiousness has stopped them from challenging Saddam's totalitarian rule.
Some fear that the Kurds, who have been battling Baghdad for decades for an autonomous homeland, would seek to establish an independent state in Iraq's mountainous north.
Zebari said, however: "We'd have a genuine interest in maintaining peace in the region and establish a genuine democratic government."
The Islamic groups face the specter of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His exhortations to Iraq's Shiite Moslem majority during the 1980-88 war to rise up against Saddam did not work.
But suspicions linger that if Saddam were toppled, the Shiites, some 55 percent of Iraq's 16 million people, might try to create an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq.