No matter how the conflict with Iraq turns out, it won't be the last power struggle in the Middle East. And one of the next big ones won't have oil as the centerpiece, but perhaps something even more crucial to people who live there - water.

While the sheikdoms of the Middle East are rich in oil, they generally are bone dry. Turkey, which generally has little of its own petroleum, does have command of much of the water vital to the region.Once known as part of the Fertile Crescent of ancient scriptures, southeastern Turkey was once known as the lush and fruitful Mesopotamia. Now it is seeking to use the vital Euphrates River to build a modern industrial country.

With a huge $7 billion project involving construction of 22 dams along the Euphrates, Turkey seeks to control the water and produce huge amounts of hydroelectric power. And with such control of water flow comes a significant say in the fate of Iraq and Syria, which also depend on the river.

Early in the next century, when all the dams are finished, Turkey will be in a position to parcel out water to Syria and Iraq - both among the most aggressive and repressive regimes of the Middle East.

The largest of the 22 dams, the Ataturk Dam, is completed and is slowly filling with water. Both Syria and Iraq already have felt Turkey's power as the flow of water to both nations has been reduced to create the lake behind the Ataturk Dam.

Some Westerners see that as a powerful weapon to use against Iraq's Saddam Hussein and would like Turkey to fill the lake faster, further cutting the downstream flow and making Saddam more aware of his dependency on the Turks.

While that sounds appealing, there are reasons to hesitate - at least in the eyes of Turkey - before making water into a weapon. Long after Saddam is gone, Turkey must live together with Iraq and Syria, and withholding water would not be quickly forgotten. Even the Bush administration, while it would like to use the water threat against Iraq, admits that "now is not forever."

In any case, neither Iraq nor Syria is happy, and they are likely to be increasingly disturbed over the years as Turkey releases water on a strictly defined schedule. Turkey says the water released will be the average of recent years. The lakes behind the dams will be formed by storing excess water in the winter and spring.

However, that will force farmers in Iraq and Syria to change their ancient methods of farming by irrigation flooding. More expensive irrigation methods will have to be used. And the regulated water flow from Turkey will be more polluted.

Tension already is high over the issue. And it is one more reason why Turkey would not be happy with Saddam having a stranglehold on Middle East oil and seeing him become an ever richer and increasingly powerful military threat to the region.

Whether it be oil or water mixed with old hatreds, real peace in the Middle East may prove to be exceptionally elusive.