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US seeks right equation to topple Saddam

Bush officials say it is not matter of if Hussein must go, but when, and how.

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In 1996, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright outlined a plan to the Clinton White House for toppling America's longtime nemesis, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

It would take a quarter-of-a-million allied forces, Ms. Albright concluded, but it could be done. But the numbers and uncertainty over the operation's aftermath snuffed support for the proposal.

A different administration, a war on terrorism, and a military success in Afghanistan later, the US is pursuing the idea of removing Mr. Hussein with renewed vigor.

Yet, despite quick speculation after President Bush's State of the Union address last month that the decision to shift the war on terrorism to ousting Hussein had been made, the Bush administration is signalling something different. Yes Saddam must go, but how and when that will happen has yet to be decided. In many ways the US is confronting the same core problem it has for a decade: How to get rid of Hussein without incurring unintended consequences.

Iraq has clearly got the message that it is back in US sights. At their request, Iraqi officials will meet with UN Secretary General Koffi Annan next week. The Iraqis hope to build international sympathy, while Mr. Annan will push for a return of weapons' inspectors to stave off US intervention.

In the days since Bush identified an "axis of evil" made up Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - administration officials have made it clear that Iraq is deemed the next "evildoer" requiring action.

But this new resolve to take some kind of action is raising the same questions: What kind of US force would it take to topple Saddam? Can the US count on anyone - either allies outside Iraq or anti-Saddam forces within - to join in the effort? What are the options for replacing a deposed Hussein, and is any individual or group ready to take his place? Can a post-Saddam Iraq - a country created from disparate ethnic and religious populations - even hold together? What are the implications for the strategic Persian Gulf region?

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