After several postponements, a US-sponsored meeting of Iraqi opposition groups and individuals took place in London on December 14-15.

The main resolutions adopted by some 330 delegates to the Iraqi Open Opposition Conference reiterated their often-repeated commitment to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of democracy in Iraq.

“It was not the opposition Iraqis but the Americans who needed this gathering, eager to show they had broad support among diverse opposition groups,” says Dr. Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute, London. “Whatever show of unity the opposition leaders managed to project will be short-lived. They will go back to devoting more space in their publications to attacking one another than Saddam.”

Before the conference had begun, even Kanan Makiya, chairman of the State Department-sponsored committee that issued the document “The Transition to Democracy in Iraq,” acknowledged that “no Iraqi Arab political organization on the scene today has been tested and can be said to be truly representative.” The assessment of most nonpartisan Iraqis in London was that the US-funded exercise was a thinly disguised attempt by the White House to provide itself with a political cover for invading Iraq.

As Alani notes, “Aside from Sharif Ali bin al Hussein [of the Movement for Constitutional Monarchy], the conference did not have a single Sunni Arab leader, even though Sunnis are a third of the Arab population.” The absence of Sunnis, who have ruled Iraq since 1638–first as part of the (Sunni) Ottoman Empire, and later as an independent state, from 1932 to the present–foreshadows trouble in the post-Saddam era, in which a newly em-powered Shiite majority may choose to settle old scores with the Sunnis. What’s more, like other ruling classes and ethnic groups throughout history, the Sunnis are unlikely to give up power without a fight–and thus they are a force that must be reckoned with in any post-Saddam Iraq.

In reality, so much of the debate in the opposition ranks–whether or not to form a provisional government, and whether to choose its leadership on the basis of ethnicity and sect or sheer merit–was just hot air. These options are predicated on the fate of Saddam. That will be decided by the Pentagon. And gatherings such as the one in London make not an iota of difference to its plans.

How the American invasion of Iraq proceeds will determine what happens after Saddam. Consider three scenarios: optimistic, pessimistic and in-between.

The Pentagon’s optimistic scenario envisages the bulk of Saddam’s military surrendering or deserting en masse at the end of two to three weeks of continuous bombing, the operation costing $1.5 billion to $3 billion a week, with the population welcoming the “liberating” American soldiers. The brevity of the conflict insures unity in the opposition ranks. The loss of Iraqi oil–now 2-2.5 percent of the global total–is amply compensated for by Saudi Arabia, with its spare capacity amounting to 6 percent of the world aggregate, and Iraq’s oilfields will remain unharmed.

The military logic behind this scenario, released under different guises by the Pentagon’s hawkish civilian bosses and meant to reassure the American public, is based primarily on the testimony of Iraqi defectors. The unreliability of such sources is widely known, the most glaring example of this, for the United States, being the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, in which the CIA relied on false information from defectors. This is of great concern in the case of Iraq–as was explained by a British lawyer of Iraqi origin in London, the haven for more notable Iraqi exiles than all other cities and countries combined. “When these Iraqis arrive at a Western airport, they seek political asylum,” he says. “For this they must show that they are important, and that they have acted so seriously against the Saddam regime that if returned, they would be jailed, tortured or executed. So these guys lie. And over time they become expert at inventing stories.” It is on this foundation that the US-British alliance has built the body of its “intelligence” over the past twelve years, which underlies the Pentagon’s sunny scenario.

This scenario also ignores two pre-eminent facts of recent Iraqi history. One, Iraqis have a strong nationalist sense that was enhanced when they fought the eight-year war with Iran. Two, almost invariably, Iraqi civilians blame Washington for the sanctions, which have reduced them to penury. Judging from the opinions expressed to me by ordinary citizens during my visit to Iraq in 2000, so deep is the resentment and hostility toward America and Americans that for the bulk of Iraqis, it is unimaginable that any good can come to them from Washington–especially if that would be at the end of massive bombing by the Pentagon of their weakened country and society. They are therefore unlikely to welcome conquering US soldiers with the warmth the Pentagon expects.

On November 19 the “Iraqi military defects en masse” scenario received a grievous setback. That day the Danish government arrested Nizar al Khazraji, former (Sunni) Iraqi Army chief of staff, living in the town of Soroe, and charged him with crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in the 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds, consisting of mass executions, razing of scores of villages and use of chemical weapons, involving some 100,000 deaths. Before his defection in 1996, Khazraji was a special adviser to Saddam, after having served him as the army chief of staff during 1987-90. “His arrest will make it that much harder to encourage other [Iraqi] officers to defect if they fear they will be charged too,” said an opposition leader. Though released on bail, Khazraji has been ordered to remain in Denmark so that special prosecutor Birgitte Vestberg can complete her criminal investigations. She is unmoved by Khazraji’s pleas that he is a victim of false accusations by Saddam’s agents or by the prospect of upsetting the Anglo-American geopolitical plans, in which Khazraji may figure as the new leader of Iraq. Her sole task, she says, is to determine whether he has committed the alleged crimes, and that could take a year or longer.

There are other problems. Gen. Najib al Salhi, leader of the US-sponsored Iraqi Military Alliance, said the Pentagon’s threats to destroy Iraq’s conventional weapons risked alienating military elements who might otherwise be receptive to a regime change imposed by the United States. Other generals also warned against purging the army of Saddam supporters, saying there will be a backlash if senior Iraqi officers are punished arbitrarily.

At the other end of the Pentagon’s spectrum is its pessimistic scenario. This envisions intense urban fighting in Iraq, where every household has a gun, with the conflict lasting several months. During the fighting, oil wells in Iraq are torched and those elsewhere in the region are damaged by Saddamist saboteurs, as unrest spreads throughout the Middle East and the body bags of US soldiers fuel an antiwar movement in America.

In turn, George W. Bush takes a strong stand, true to his recent declaration to Bob Woodward that as the President he is “the calcium in the backbone” of America. His Administration decides on a long-term occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, at the cost of $160 billion a year, according to Yale economist William Nordhaus.

Even if the worst-case scenario does not come to pass, a military occupation of Iraq remains a serious option, with senior Administration officials frequently alluding to the 1945-52 US occupation of Japan under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. They glibly ignore the numerous differences between postwar Japan in 1945 and postwar Iraq in 2003. Japan under Emperor Hirohito, associated with the sun by tradition and therefore revered as a demigod, surrendered unconditionally, with the Emperor personally endorsing the victors, thus allowing MacArthur to rule by fiat to implement carefully devised policies. There is no sign that Saddam will follow Hirohito’s example, or that the Bush White House has put much thought into such policies. Moreover, since MacArthur inherited wholesale the administrative infrastructure of Emperor Hirohito, the reform of the political/economic/educational system progressed smoothly. Nobody expects the institutions of the Baathist regime in Iraq to survive Saddam’s defeat. So any reform will be hard to implement.

Despite the fact that policing was left to the Japanese authorities, Washington deployed 100,000 troops for more than six years to implement reform in Japan. By contrast, US planners now envisage the stationing of 75,000-100,000 troops at the cost $16 billion a year. This is unrealistic. In Northern Ireland, with a population of 1.7 million, the British government stationed close to 20,000 troops with an equal number of loyal armed policemen and an army reserve of the same size, thus committing 60,000 troops and armed police to tackle about 1,000 members of the Irish Republican Army, most of them in jail at any one time. In addition, the loyalist Protestant majority outnumbered the rebellious Catholic population by 2 to 1.

Unlike highly homogeneous Japan, Iraq is a heterogeneous society. The traditional religious, ethnic and tribal animosities will break out in postwar Iraq once the iron hand of Saddam is removed, with civil conflict erupting along ethnic and sectarian lines, the deadliest one being between Sunnis and Shiites who share the Mesopotamian plain.

Last, Japan lacks natural resources and does not share land borders with neighbors. By contrast, Iraq, possessing the second-largest oil deposits in the world, is surrounded by six intrusive neighbors, each with its own agenda, and is located in a region that has been the most volatile and violent since World War II.

Turkey has its eye on the oil region of Kirkuk in the north. The Saudi royals want to insure that the contagion of “Western-style democracy” does not take root in Iraq and then spread to their kingdom. Iran wants its co-religionist Shiites to assert their power at the expense of the Sunni minority. Syria will do its utmost to see that the new rulers in Baghdad do not turn themselves into Washington’s vassals.

Finally, there is the in-between scenario, in which the fighting lasts up to three months. This will strain the fragile unity among opposition groups, as the death and destruction of Iraqi Muslims, shown on Arab and Muslim television channels, will make the continued membership of the Teheran-based Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) in the US-sponsored opposition untenable.

Observers agree that SCIRI’s clerics have merely taken out an insurance policy: If Saddam is overthrown, they want their share of power. Alani says, “This opportunistic alliance is more embarrassing to the United States than to Iran or SCIRI, to have a body with ‘Islamic Revolution’ in its name in a US-sponsored alliance.”

But then again, those on the inside track of the Bush Jr. Administration know well that what ultimately counts is the puppet master, not the puppet. As one well-placed American observer at the London conference said, “Eighty percent of the people here won’t have any role to play in a post-Hussein government.” To that figure, one should probably add another 19 percent.