JUDITH YAPHE is an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. She spoke with CHARLES RAPPLEYE about Saddam Hussein's history and the nature of the Iraqi opposition.

Military action in and of itself is highly unlikely to achieve the goal of changing the regime, of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. That's not an intended consequence of our current mission. What concerns me is this notion on the part of many people in the press and in Congress that the only end game can be the removal of Saddam Hussein. There's an unrealism involved in this.

Saddam Hussein is supremely in control of Iraq. You're talking about a country that he has governed in one way or another since 1968, and with a sole hand since the mid-'70s. It's a “republic of fear,” as one Iraqi dissident in exile has painted it. Even slight infractions, such as making a joke about Saddam, are considered acts of rebellion. The punishments are devastating, and they are not just for that person, they extend to families. We're talking about a closed society that's been operating under a very tight repressive rule for a long time. The eyes in Iraq are everywhere.

Saddam himself comes from a very small village. His father died before he was born, and he was raised after the age of 10 by an uncle. He was essentially then an orphan in a society that highly values fatherhood and family. Saddam was very smart and cunning from an early age. As a teenager, he joined the Ba'ath Party, which was then an outlaw party. In his early 20s, he was involved in an assassination attempt on Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Kassim. It failed, and Saddam escaped, wounded. The bullet that was pulled out of his leg at that time is still in a museum in Baghdad. He built a reputation of being thoroughly dedicated, thoroughly loyal and totally focused on building a strong party apparatus. He eventually came into control of the security forces. That's his base of power.

In the years since he's come to power, Saddam has staged a couple of major purges. In 1979, for example, when he emerged as president, he staged a big conference in Baghdad where he invited people who were outside the country to come back, like ambassadors and senior party people. They each did one of those self-confession things, and then they were taken out and shot. He's also done purges of military figures if they seem to be too popular with the troops or don't support his military line. He goes after anyone who's got a popular power base. The most interesting case was Adnan Khairallah. He was minister of defense, and he was a real military figure like Saddam and very popular with the military. They all went off on a picnic one day in many helicopters, and the poor defense minister's helicopter crashed in a sandstorm and he was killed. No one believes that this was an accident. The theory is that if you become popular, if you are seen as having some kind of independent power base, you're doomed. Nobody survives who is not thoroughly loyal, and that's the primary criterion. It's not, are you an Arab, a Sunni or whatever, it's your loyalty to Saddam. Some compare it to a Mafia sort of structure – without casting aspersions on the Mafia, of course.

Saddam, meanwhile, has emerged through these various international crises of recent years as a proactive and stronger force than we'd like, because he's able to play on very popular themes – the starving Iraqi people, the suffering Iraqi children, the lack of medical care – all of which he blames on the U.S. It's all our fault. Now those things resonate on the street.

I've watched this country for a long, long time; it's a large part of my career. And I don't believe there is any workable diplomatic solution at the present time. The only message Saddam Hussein understands is getting hit on the head with a two-by-four. You have to ask yourself, for example, why he didn't pull out of Kuwait when he saw more than half a million troops arrayed against him. He didn't think we would carry through with military action then, and he doesn't think we're going to do it now. Left alone, he will continue to acquire, develop and produce the systems that are so dangerous. He's used them already, so I have to make the assumption that if he feels he's in the position where he has to, he will use them again.

Hussein has devastated a wonderful country. He's virtually destroyed the middle class, the intelligentsia, the hopes that Iraq once had of living as a free state. He's virtually destroyed civil society. So what could a post-Hussein Iraq look like? It once had a parliament. It had a king. Will it go back to having a king? Probably not. Would it become an Islamic state? Probably not. But all these influences are there at play. It is a very interesting society with very strong tribal elements. There is a significant Shiite opposition movement based in Iran, and they subscribe to a theory of a democratic Iraq in which many elements of Iraqi society would join as part of a coalition moving toward a democratic government. The point is that a free Iraq could be a very interesting society. There is no Thomas Jefferson; they wouldn't get there quickly. It wouldn't be simple, and it wouldn't be bloodless, and it wouldn't be easy. But it is possible.

LA Weekly