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The big gamble

Bush administration hopes for a democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq

Saddam Hussein's image can be seen throughout Iraq in pictures, portraits and statues.

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The following is a text adaptation of a joint CNN Presents/New York Times special report, "Showdown: Iraq."

(CNN) -- The face of Saddam Hussein is also the public face of Iraq. His image lines the streets of Baghdad and his presence dominates all aspects of Iraqi life.

But if the Bush administration is successful in its stated goal of "regime change," what would Iraq look like without Saddam? Would it flourish or would it fall apart?

"Our goal would be an Iraq that has territorial integrity, a government that is democratic and pluralistic, a nation where the human rights of every ethnic and religious group are recognized and respected," said Vice President Dick Cheney on August 29.

The Bush administration believes the stakes in Iraq have never been higher: A new government in Baghdad could unite the nation and help stabilize the region. The right kind of government, the administration believes, could even help ease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"While the first Bush administration saw nation building in Iraq as a quagmire, the second Bush administration sees that it's a strategic opportunity," said New York Times military affairs reporter Michael Gordon. "The first Bush administration was afraid they'd be stuck. American troops would be staying there forever. It would be a chaotic country, might fall apart. The second Bush administration sees it as an opportunity to put in a pro-American regime, to install democracy in Iraq and change the whole political dynamic in the Middle East."

A history of instability

But stability and democracy in Iraq could be wishful thinking, if history is an accurate guide.

Iraq is considered a fragile nation. Some call it a made-up country created by the British and French in a secret deal to protect their colonial interests at the end of World War I.

Saddam Hussein has managed to provide some stability in Iraq, where governments have been overthrown more than 20 times in the last 80 years.

Modern Iraq is a fragile mix of religion, ethnic groups and tribes. Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and the country's central areas have run the government since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Sunni Muslims comprise roughly 35 percent of the country's population.

Shi'a (or Shiite) Muslims - based mainly in the south - are the actual majority group in Iraq, comprising 60 percent of the population. And the Kurds in the mountainous north have achieved a degree of security, supported by British and American air power enforcing the northern no-fly zone. Kurds are roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of the Iraqi population.

Iraq also has suffered from political instability that has been the hallmark of the country. The government has been overthrown more than 20 times since 1920 and the nation has no history of a democratic ruler.

Sandra Mackey traveled to Iraq in 2000 conducting research for her book, "Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein."

"The real problem with Iraq is you know what you do with a country afterwards?" she said. "It is the political challenge of keeping the Iraqi state together. And trying to get the Iraqis to commit to their country not just a political entity but really as a nation in which everybody feels that they have an interest."

Mamoud Fandy, a Middle East scholar, says he believes any fighting will be over who would succeed Saddam and that "whatever the fighting is likely to be is going to be less than what Saddam Hussein did to Iraq himself." Born in Egypt, Fandy is now a U.S. citizen and he once taught top U.S. military officers and diplomats at the National Defense University.

Another aspect of the debate on a post-Saddam Iraq is whether the Middle East is more stable with or without him in power. Mackey believes the shock waves from an overthrow of Saddam could spread.

She says a unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq could "destabilize (the region) by giving the ordinary Arab the perception that the United States really is an imperial power, that we are invading an Arab country not to bring justice and better government to the Iraqi people but as an imperialist power that is going to occupy the country and gain control of Iraq oil resources. And this is going to resonate very strongly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan."

But Fandy doubts that a change of government in Iraq would lead to changes in other Arab nations. "But given the track record of these states and their ability to control their own society for the last 50 years, I wouldn't worry about regimes toppling or things collapsing."

Fandy also says other Arab nations won't be upset by the ouster of Saddam. "The Arabs will not walk into the attack with the United States, but they will walk in the funeral and they will be very happy."

Stability or democracy?

If Saddam Hussein is removed, one of the challenges will be creating stability in Iraq.

Another issue to be considered in a potential invasion of Iraq is the Kurdish people living in the northern no-fly zone. Saddam has used chemical weapons against the Kurds before and brutally repressed a Kurdish uprising in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

Since the establishment of the northern no-fly zone, the Kurds -- who have been struggling to create a country of their own for decades -- have essentially set up an autonomous governing region for themselves. But Iran, Turkey and Syria, with Kurdish minority populations of their own, would be opposed to true Kurdish autonomy, according to New York Times correspondent John F. Burns, who has been reporting on Iraq for more than a decade.

"The neighbor states -- Iran and Turkey and Syria -- are all very much opposed to any constitutionally recognized autonomy for the Kurds in northern Iraq, because of the implications for their own Kurdish minorities," Burns said. "They think it might be a steppingstone to trouble in the future as the Kurds look beyond autonomy in northern Iraq to their age-old dream of a Kurdish state."

Dr. Bulent Aliriza, the director of the Turkey Project for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says a Kurdish state or even a semi-autonomous Kurdish area in an Iraqi federation could be a cause for war with Turkey.

"Turkey would regard that as an act that would need to be negated by Turkish military action," he said, adding that Saddam has never been perceived as a "mortal threat to Turkish interests."

Fandy believes the United States will place emphasis on stability over democracy in a post-Saddam government.

"I don't think the United States will press for democracy. The United States will try to at least make sure that its interests are served, that there is stability and stability comes first," he said. "The United States, remember, is still a conservative power with focus on stability before democracy.

Aliriza is even more doubtful that an Iraqi democracy will emerge if Saddam is removed from power.

"I think (there) would be pigs flying over Baghdad before we are likely to see general democracy in Iraq, but I would love to be proven wrong," he said.

Khidir Hamza headed Iraq's nuclear weapons program before defecting in 1994. He believes there is the possibility of democracies emerging in Iraq and the Arab world.

"I mean, everybody says they can't have democracy. I mean, are the Arabs a different breed?" he said. "What are they? I mean, now we are human beings like the rest of the world, and, democracy should be able to flourish there."

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