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Speaking of Saddam

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill spent most of the last two weeks trying to agree on a nonbinding resolution on Iraq.

What at first might seem like the usual squabbling between politicians is actually more serious: It's a sense that before the president takes military action, there should be a discussion in Congress.

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We need a discussion, one that involves all Americans, because there's a serious question at stake: What to do about Saddam Hussein? President Clinton wants to limit any military mission: He says the goals are to force Saddam to allow United Nations weapons inspectors to go wherever they want, and to make sure he can't wage war against his neighbors.

But many argue that's not enough. It's time to get rid of the Saddam problem once and for all, they say. And the way to do that is to get rid of Saddam - whatever that means.

Before we send in the cavalry, it might be well to reflect on what we can actually do.

It would seem heavy air strikes could take out Saddam's suspected chemical and biological weapons facilities, disrupt his communications, and destroy a lot of military hardware. But that's not as easy as it sounds. (When it comes to military operations, it's never as easy as it sounds.)

A lot of this stuff is easy to hide and move around. And many of the factories where Saddam might build such weapons also have civilian uses - pharmaceutical plants, fertilizer factories, and so on. Remember the Scud missiles during the Gulf War? Despite our searching high and low for them as Saddam rained down missiles on Israel, Iraq still had more than 200 at war's end. (He may have two left now.)

It would also seem that we could destroy Saddam's Republican Guard. But Iraq has dispersed it and set up dummy bases to confuse our surveillance.

What do we mean by "getting rid" of Saddam? Arresting him? Killing him? And how do we do this? The US probably does not know where Saddam is at any given moment. That means a commando operation - tough under any circumstances - likely is out of the question. Ditto with an air strike. And what about the morality and legality of such a move?

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That leaves a ground invasion, and we are not prepared for that. We don't have enough troops in the region to carry it out. We'd most likely have to mount such an operation out of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis might balk. An amphibious landing near Basra would entail a host of problems, not least that it's hard to see the Iranians standing by and doing nothing. Invading from Turkey isn't feasible for political and geographic reasons.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi notes that there are other options between the current sanctions and a full-scale invasion. We could expand the no-fly zones. We could disrupt radio and television communications and start a Radio Free Iraq. We could aid "democratic forces" - if there are any.

Or we could do what we did against the Soviet Union: Contain Saddam and wait him out. But it's not clear the US has the patience to do that, and if Saddam does have weapons of mass destruction, he'd still be a threat to peace.

Where is the administration's endgame? Senator Lott asks. Where do we stand after air strikes, which would surely end what is still a useful UN inspection regime? Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assures him there is a plan, but it is not yet apparent. And if we get rid of Saddam, who goes in his place?

There is no easy answer here. Regardless of what the US and its allies decide, no one should harbor any delusions about the obstacles to success.

* Lawrence J. Goodrich is a member of the Monitor's editorial staff.

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