WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, increasingly convinced that Saddam Hussein will hold onto power even after the rout of his forces, is quietly forging a strategy to prompt a coup in Baghdad by preventing the Iraqi president from rebuilding his shattered economy and offering a brighter future to his war-weary people.
Senior U.S. officials said yesterday that the United States intends to maintain the economic sanctions that block Iraqi oil exports, depriving Saddam of the money his country desperately needs to recover from the allied bombing. They hope that the further deterioration of life inside Iraq, and the bleakness of the country's prospects, will spark a revolt against Saddam's leadership in a matter of weeks or months.
"We will present Iraqis with the prospect of a future in which this leader will just drag them further and further down," a senior official said.
Asked whether the administration foresaw Saddam being forced out of power within a year, the official replied: "We wouldn't want him around for that long."
At the same time, the administration plans to ask the United Nations to maintain its embargo on sales of military and other "strategic" goods to Iraq, to make it impossible for Saddam's armed forces to rebuild.
And, in a further bid to humiliate Saddam and prevent new threats to Kuwait, the allies are considering strict limits on the number and types of weapons, especially armor and artillery, that Iraq will be allowed to station near its southern border, officials said.
All three measures have been part of an evolving U.S. strategy for what some officials refer to as "the war termination phase" -- the political and military arrangements to be made in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's defeat. The suddenness of Iraq's military collapse has sent senior officials scrambling to finish work on policy options for President Bush.
"We expected the Iraqi army to hang around a little longer," a White House official confessed.
At some point, a senior official said, Bush will officially declare the war over because its main goals, the removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and the restoration of the emirate's government, have been achieved.
"The question is not how to declare victory, but how to define its terms," he said. "We have a responsibility to help ensure peace and stability."
Unlike most wars, this one is not ending with a formal peace conference to set the terms of the armistice. "Saddam isn't going to negotiate a surrender," the official said.
As a result, the administration intends to ask the U.N. Security Council to maintain some of its 12 resolutions authorizing international sanctions against Iraq until the United States and its allies are satisfied that "peace and security" are restored, as the council's resolution No. 678 calls for. And that, officials are increasingly saying, means that Saddam must lose his job.
The U.N. resolutions, besides demanding Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, require Iraq formally to renounce its annexation of the emirate and to pay reparations for all damage caused as a result of its invasion and occupation. Iraq has not fulfilled those conditions.
The United States, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, can veto any decision of the panel -- and thus could block any move to relax the sanctions, the State Department official noted.
In practice, however, it would be difficult to enforce a continued economic embargo against Iraq unless most major nations agree that the sanctions should continue.
So, even before the last guns are stilled, Secretary of State James Baker and others are already beginning the first diplomatic steps toward forging a postwar consensus. Baker was scheduled to meet with British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd today, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas tomorrow and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher on Friday. He may also fly to Saudi Arabia next week.
Paradoxically, one senior official said, the administration sees an odd silver lining if Saddam manages to cling to power in Baghdad -- at least for a while.
"We need to keep the coalition together, but in the postwar phase, the goals are less clear and defined," he said. "If he's still there, it's easier to keep the coalition together."
The administration plans to seek a relaxation of the U.N. embargo on non-strategic sales to Iraq, such as food and consumer goods.
Despite its continued reliance on the U.N. resolutions, however, the administration has already decided to bypass the United Nations for most of its postwar security arrangements, officials said.
Instead, the focus will be on the Gulf Cooperation Council, a long-ineffective regional grouping of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, which officials hope can now be invigorated with long-term links to the countries whose armies are playing the major part in winning the war -- the United States, Britain, France and Egypt.
The idea of demilitarizing part of southern Iraq is "under some discussion," a senior official said. Some officials are strongly in favor of the idea, but others argue that it raises a host of new problems.
In any case, several officials said, the administration has no interest in a long-term role for American troops inside Iraq. If the area is to be occupied for a time, or patrolled by an observer force, "we want to turn the job over to Arab forces as soon as possible," a White House official said.
But George Carver, a former deputy director of the CIA, predicted that Saddam would soon fall under continued economic and political pressure.