Even now, with the end of the gulf war nowhere in sight, Western diplomats are beginning to contemplate what a future Iraq might look like, an Iraq without Saddam Hussein.

And the picture is not a pretty one.Postwar Iraq has every chance to be a chaotic and perhaps violent place, analysts and exiles say. Attempts to rebuild the nation will be hindered by its history of political repression, the ambitions of aggressive neighbors and the instability inherent in Iraq's volatile ethnic and religious mix.

The precise shape of the Iraq to come will be influenced heavily by several unknowns: How long the war lasts, how bloody it becomes and whether Saddam is ousted by his own people or foreign troops. And it is conceivable, of course, that he still will be in power when the fighting stops.

But Saddam's demise seems to be emerging as a primary, if yet unspoken, goal of the multinational alliance. So questions about what comes next in Iraq are being raised with increasing frequency.

Among those raising the questions are the various Iraqi opposition groups, operating primarily from Damascus, Syria, with elements in Teheran, Iran; Beirut, Lebanon; and London. After years of feuding among themselves along ideological, ethnic and religious lines, 17 of the groups have come together in a united front.

Their common post-Saddam design calls for a transitional military government, the drafting of a constitution, free elections and establishment of some sort of democracy.

"What these groups have done could turn out to be the foundation of a post-Saddam government," said Brian Pridham, director of Gulf Studies at England's Exeter University. "But I'm afraid all they really agree on is how much they hate Saddam, and the whole thing falls apart the minute he's gone."

The question of who rules Iraq is just one of the big issues facing that country after Saddam. There are others.

Will the countries neighboring a weakened Iraq seek to dismember the country, or short of that, try to tear pieces off the edges? Turkey, for instance, has claims to the oil-rich northern province of Mosul, and Iran, too, has designs on border territory.

Analysts and exiles are adamant in answering the latter questions. Iraq's borders must be respected, they say, even though those borders, like those of other countries in the region, are essentially arbitrary and without long-term historical foundation.

To start redrawing the map risks huge complications. It would undercut the legitimacy of the multinational assault against Iraq - which, after all, was based on the inviolability of Kuwait's borders - and set the stage for long-term chaos.

"Iraq is not Lebanon," said Laith Kubba, head of the London-based Conference on Human Rights and Democracy in Iraq. "If it becomes too unstable, it will bring down the whole region. That's why America and her allies have to deter others from taking a bite out of Iraq."

Complicating Iraq's prospects for stability is the fact that, in historical terms, it is a relatively new country - established in 1921, made independent in 1932 - with a potentially volatile religious and ethnic mix.

Resentment is felt by the country's Shi'ite Muslim majority against the Sunni Muslim minority, which has dominated Iraqi political and military institutions for years. The Shi'ites, who represent 60 percent of an overall population of roughly 18 million, tend to live in the south of the country, the Sunnis in the north.

And the country's three million Kurds resent the Arab majority. The Kurds, who have been subjected to gas attacks and forced relocation on a massive scale, have long sought greater autonomy from Baghdad or a country of their own in the northeastern mountains.

The opposition is divided among Sunnis and Shi'ites, monarchists and tribalists, pan-Arabists and nationalists, liberal democrats and communists, Arabs and Kurds.

Their various visions of Iraq include a parliamentary democracy, a more enlightened dictatorship, a loose federation, two separate countries and an Islamic republic in the Iranian mode.

"In my view, the people best equipped to oust Saddam would look very much like him, probably coming from the military rather than the Baath Party," said Charles Tripp, a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at London University."The generals could deliver what the anti-Saddam coalition presumably wants: The return of Kuwait and the maintenance of order."