IF SADDAM HUSSEIN IN 1990 had merely occupied Kuwait's disputed border areas and northern oil fields, he might have gotten away with it. But instead, he conquered the entire country. Unchecked greed was his downfall.

Now, unfortunately, Saddam seems to have learned to settle for half a loaf - - or at least to take the loaf one slice at a time. Under the coaching of Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, who knows from personal experience in the KGB that the Soviet Union successfully concealed a massive biological- weapons program, Saddam has apparently concluded that he can allow U.N. inspectors back in at very little risk.

Having obtained three weeks to move everything the inspectors were about to find, Saddam will now let them try to start over again at square one. Adding more Russian and French inspectors will not make the inspections more vigorous. If the inspectors do start to find anything significant, Saddam can always kick them out again. If the inspectors don't find much in a few months, the pressure from Saddam's Russian friends to lift sanctions entirely may become more than the Clinton administration can resist. Over time, containment will lead more and more countries -- including, perhaps, the United States -- to accommodate Saddam.

This is no way to deal with a problem that, in President Clinton's words, concerns "the security of the 21st century." If we are serious about dismantling Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and preventing him from building more, we will have to confront him sooner or later -- and sooner would be better

Unfortunately, at this point, only the substantial use of military force could prove that the United States is serious and reverse the slow collapse of the international coalition. But military force alone is not enough. It must be part of an overall political strategy that sets as its goal not merely the containment of Saddam but the liberation of Iraq from his tyranny.

If it comes to military action, pinpricks will not suffice. Sustained attacks on the elite military units and security forces that are the main pillar of Saddam's terror-based regime are necessary. With such a demonstration of seriousness, new options will open for U.S. policy. Other countries, and the many Iraqis who would like to be free of Saddam's tyranny, will be prepared to respond differently to a new strategy that embraces the removal of Saddam's regime as our overall objective. Such a strategy would have six elements:

First, we need to coordinate with regional allies, especially Turkey. In exchange for Turkish cooperation, Ankara must be assured that it will have a major say in Iraq's future and that the goal of Saddam's removal is a unified Iraq, not a separate Kurdish state on Turkey's borders. The rich Arab states in the Gulf which are most threatened by Saddam -- need to be convinced that we are serious about finishing the job, but they should share the costs and logistical burdens of supporting the Iraqi resistance movement.

Second, we need to encourage the revival of the Iraqi opposition. Most Iraqis oppose Saddam's dictatorship. But they feel they were handed the worst possible outcome from the Gulf War -- sanctions and Saddam. Revival of the opposition should not be a matter of organized coup plots, which would be doomed, nor should it consist of CIA manipulation of exile groups. What is needed is the assurance of economic, military, and political support of those Iraqis prepared to take charge of their own future.

Furthermore, it is essential to end the fratricidal struggle between the two Kurdish factions in northern Iraq and to enlist Shi'ia and Sunni support so that the resistance becomes a broad-based national movement. As the Iraqi opposition gains ground, we should develop international support for a viable provisional government. This government should control as much of the frozen Iraqi assets as possible, under some international supervision, as long as it represents the entire Iraqi people. We should also end the absurd application of sanctions to regions of Iraq that are not under Saddam's control, a step that would increase the economic resources of opposition groups.

Third, we must seek to delegitimize Saddam and his regime. He should be indicted as a war criminal on the basis of his crimes against Iraq's Kurds and Shi'ias, and against the people of Kuwait. We should emphasize that contracts signed with his regime are not legally valid and that the United States will never permit Saddam to sell the oil that companies in France and elsewhere are already panting after. Companies that want to develop Iraq's enormous oil wealth should line up with a government of free Iraq instead.

Fourth, in cooperation with our friends and regional allies, we should arm and train opposition forces.

Fifth, we should restore Radio Free Iraq and resume our support for Iraqi opposition radio programming, which dried up in 1996.

And last, we should be prepared to provide military protection for Iraqi units defecting from Saddam to the resistance movement. It was a grave mistake not to provide such support when Iraqis rose up against Saddam in 1991.

A strategy of removing Saddam will take time. However, when the United States acts, as President Bush did in the Gulf and as President Clinton finally did in Bosnia, the whole strategic picture changes. Actions that are difficult or impossible now will become more feasible after we have taken the first steps.

There is no guarantee of success; this course certainly entails risks. However, Saddam Hussein is not 10 feet tall. In fact, he is weak. But we are letting this tyrant, who seeks to build weapons of mass destruction, get stronger. Will this be Bill Clinton's most important foreign-policy legacy?

Zalmay M. Khalilzad is a senior strategist at the Rand Corporation and served as assistant undersecretary of dense for policy planning in the Bush administration. Paul Wolfowitz is dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University and was an undersecretary of defense during the Bush administration.

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