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Who will preside after Hussein's demise?

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Who will lead Iraq when Saddam Hussein goes?

The possibilities include a U.S. Army general, a Jordanian prince and a former banker with a theft conviction -- a group that suggests the ideal candidate has yet to emerge.

Finding a successor to Hussein will be all the more difficult because modern Iraq is made up of many rival factions cobbled together by the British in 1921. Moreover, the county has no democratic tradition and has spent more than 20 years under one man's smothering rule.

In the immediate aftermath of war, Iraq likely would be administered by Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, under a military occupation similar to that in Japan after World War II. But it would be risky for Franks to stay too long, experts warn.

"If you look at the history of the Middle East for the past 200 years, every effort of the West to establish a significant presence has been a lightning rod that has resulted in violence against whoever was trying to do it," says Arthur Lowrie, a former U.S. diplomat in Iraq.

To lead Iraq in the longer term, the man most often mentioned is Dr. Ahmad Chalabi. Head of the Iraqi National Congress, Chalabi is credited with bringing together the Iraqi opposition after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He is now in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq trying to organize a government that could take over when Hussein is gone.

But Chalabi, who has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Chicago, has several negatives. An expensive dresser who enjoys the good life, he has spent most of his 57 years outside Iraq and may struggle to win the support of Iraqis who have endured decades of hardship. He also faces hundreds of lawsuits from Kurds who say he didn't pay his bills while working in the north in the '90s.

But the biggest rap against Chalabi stems from the failure of a Jordanian bank he founded. In 1992, he was convicted in absentia of theft and embezzlement; some in the U.S. State Department think he's corrupt even though he claims the conviction was politically motivated.

Still, Chalabi is generally liked by Congress, and would bring a formidable intellect to the job.

"Don't take away from the guy -- he's phenomenally intelligent," said Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Iraq at Britain's University of Exeter. "He's a tremendously high-powered intellect which sometimes comes across as arrogant, and I think that is the main reason people deride him."

Two other names often floated are those of Prince Hassan and Ali Sharif, brother and cousin, respectively, of Jordan's late King Hussein. The Jordanian royal family is of the same clan as King Faisal, the last monarch of modern Iraq.

"The idea of having a smooth-talking, aristocratic gentleman in place could go down very well in Washington, D.C." Stansfield said.

But it might not go down as well in Iraq or Jordan. Iraqis didn't think much of King Faisal: considered a puppet of the West, he was executed in 1958. And Stansfield doubts that Jordan's own monarch, a valued U.S. ally, would go along with such a move:

"If you're King Abdullah, who has a whole bunch of problems at home, are you really going to let your relative be king of Iraq with all that oil next door?"

Here are other possible successors:

Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

On-again, off-again rivals, these two represent the 4-million Kurds in northern Iraq who have created a semi-independent government under U.S. and British air cover since the Gulf War. The idea of either man leading Iraq would be anathema to Turkey, a close U.S. ally that fears its own restive Kurdish population would join Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Iran to form a separate nation.

"The Turks don't want the Kurds, and the U.S. listens to Turkey before it listens to the Kurds," Stansfield says.

Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special representative for Afghanistan. This respected Algerian diplomat could be a good administrator, acceptable to both the West and the Arab world, while Iraq makes the transition to democracy. He helped mediate the end of Lebanon's civil war and chaired a U.N. panel that assessed U.N. global peacekeeping missions.

Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. This fundamentalist group was established with the help of Iran, but historically has opposed foreign intervention in Iraq.

Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord. A former Baath Party official, he heads an exile group composed mainly of ex-military officers and other party members opposed to Hussein.

Qusay Hussein, Saddam Hussein's younger son and head of his personal security forces. He is definitely a dark horse: It's highly unlikely the Bush administration would let Iraq be run by someone so high in Hussein's regime. But unlike brother Uday, Qusay is considered smart and mature, and there's a remote possibility Hussein might abdicate in his favor.

"Saddam and his sons are great survivors and when faced with the possibility they're going to die, they might do this," Stansfield said. "Qusay's background is smothered in blood . . . but he's a politician people can do business with even if he's an extremely dangerous individual."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com .

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