Before the issue of what to do about Saddam Hussein becomes a lashing foil in the U.S. presidential campaign, candidates and voters alike need to consider the root problem -- the nature of Iraq itself -- and the perils that would follow the villainous leader's ouster.
Iraq, for five centuries a provincial outpost of the Ottoman Empire, became a protectorate of Britain in the settlement of the ''spoils'' of World War I. Britain's mandate was to consolidate Iraq as a modern state, which meant incorporating three groups of people who shared either language or religion or ethnicity, but not all three. Thus Iraq was denied at birth the most basic element of nationhood -- a common identity among its people.
In 1932, when Iraq became independent, around 60 percent of the population was Shia Muslim. But these co-religionists were a mix -- indigenous Arabs and non-Arabs who had migrated from Iran over the centuries. As adherents to the Shiite sect of Islam, which claims only 10 percent of all Muslims, they were vilified as heretics by the mainstream Sunnis.
Another 20 percent of the population was Kurd, an ancient people of cloudy Persian origins. Although Sunni Muslim, they spoke their own language, not Arabic, and demanded separate nationhood. The remaining 20 percent was Arab by language and Sunni by religion.
Not only were the Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs divided by language, religion, and ethnicity; each group occupied a distinct part of the country. The Shiites populated the south, between the border of Iran and what was then Transjordan (another imperial British construction). The Kurds lived in the north, in areas adjacent to Turkey, Syria, the Soviet Union and Iran. The Kurdish minorities in those countries, too, agitated for unity of all Kurds. The Arab Sunnis, the group to which the British had granted political power, occupied the geographic center of Iraq.
Sixty years later, these groups still constitute roughly the same percentage of the population and dominate the same geographic areas they did when the country was created. Because an Iraqi is first a Sunni, Shiite or Kurd, the country has survived intact only through the combination of a bitter hostility to foreign occupation, which all three groups share, and the iron heel of powerful men who have come out of the politically and militarily dominant Sunni heartland.
The fragility of the Iraqi nation was the reason the gulf war wastopped short of Baghdad. The allies in the coalition, especially Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, feared that removal of Hussein would create a power vacuum leading to the fragmentation of Iraq. For Turkey and Syria, with their own restive Kurdish minorities, the specter of the Iraqi Kurds released to declare hTC nationhood was more frightening than Mr. Hussein.
The dread haunting everyone, including the United States, was chaos on the shores of the Persian Gulf as groups and countries grabbed for pieces of a disintegrating Iraq. So the allied thrust stopped south of Baghdad, hoping that Mr. Hussein's reportedly disgruntled military would take him out and become the new policeman of Iraqi territorial integrity.
It might have worked if the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south had not simultaneously risen in revolt. The military is dominated by their old rivals, Sunnis. As a result, Iraq's president still reigns in Baghdad, rearming his country, defying the United Nations and denying George Bush a tidy end to the gulf war.
In this atmosphere, ''get rid of Saddam,'' politically or physically, has become for many the sure answer to peace in the gulf. But as desirable as it is, the demise of Mr. Hussein could turn out to be more threatening to stability in the Persian Gulf than leaving him in place. For even without Mr. Hussein, Iraq remains Iraq, a country of hostile groups capable of ripping itself apart and throwing the whole region into turmoil.
Many Republicans are urging their slipping president to strike Iraq to reclaim the victory of the gulf war. Both the Democrats and the administration have been publicly encouraging the Kurdish opposition in exile. There is even talk of the United States arming the Kurds as it armed the Afghans in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union. But if the Kurds are armed, why not the Shiites? Will anyone win, or at the end of a decade of civil war, will some only lose less than others, as has happened in Afghanistan?
From the beginning, the gulf war was a no-win situation, so decisions were made on the basis of which course of action would lose the least. The same measure needs to be applied to the situation with Iraq.
Saddam Hussein can be removed with impunity only when there is some viable government structure to take his place. But most of the Iraqi opposition groups represent religion and ethnicity, not a unified Iraq. While some might hold high the banner of a coalition government, the imperative of tribal politics is just below the surface, waiting to emerge once Mr. Hussein is gone.
The only certainty about the current dilemma is that politicians who score points on the sole issue of dispatching Mr. Hussein run the grave risk of igniting yet another crisis in the Persian Gulf by ignoring the realities of Iraq itself.
Sandra Mackey's ''Passion and Politics: the Turbulent World of the Arabs,'' will be published by Dutton in November.