WASHINGTON – To hear officials from Iraq's main resistance group describe it, opposition to Saddam Hussein inside the country is such that not much will be needed to dislodge him.
They believe it could be done with 3,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi rebels, an Afghanistan-style bombing campaign, the insertion of several thousand U.S. special forces and a big assist from Iran. A show of American resolve would cause mass defections, they say, crumbling Saddam's regime.
The plan is being circulated by the Iraqi National Congress, a London-based confederation of Iraqi opposition groups that enjoys considerable backing on Capitol Hill but is seen as largely ineffectual by many in the administration.
The Bush administration hasn't said what military options, if any, it has in mind for Iraq.
"What happened in Afghanistan is basically what we want to do in Iraq," says Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the INC.
Its officials say the Bush administration has its own plan for removing Saddam. In response, U.S. officials that isn't unusual, since driving Saddam from office has been a longtime goal.
Richard Perle, a former Pentagon aide who maintains close ties with administration officials, says he is unaware of any serious new U.S. military plan to get rid of Saddam.
Says Secretary of State Colin Powell: "With respect to what is sometimes characterized as taking out Saddam, I never saw a plan that was going to take him out."
Officials also are concerned about unintended consequences from a U.S.-backed attempt to oust Saddam. One is the possible fragmentation and disintegration of Iraq.
President Bush recently suggested his concerns about Iraq would be eased if Saddam were to allow the return of U.N. weapons inspectors, whom the Iraqi leader expelled three years ago.
Asked what would happen if Saddam refuses, Bush said, "He'll find out."
One of the more controversial aspects of the INC plan involves Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor and longtime enemy of Saddam. The two countries fought a devastating war from 1980-1988.
Chalabi says the Iranians are prepared to help the United States remove Saddam.
"They will do nothing without U.S. support," he said.
Specifically, INC officials say Iran will provide transit, staging and logistical support for Iraqi rebel troops if the United States commits fully to the operation's success.
Perle says any role for Iran would be a mistake. "We should be encouraging the collapse of the Iranian regime," he says. "If the U.S. were to step in and cooperate with Iran in going after Iraq, this would undermine the mounting opposition to the regime."
David Mack, a former Iraqi officer at the State Department now with the private Middle East Institute, says the United States should seek other Iraqi neighbors — Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — for support roles.
Whether Turkey would allow the United States to use bases in that country in an operation against Iraq is unclear. Of particular concern to Turkey is that upheaval in Iraq could lead to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. This, in turn, could energize Kurds in neighboring Turkey to seek independence as well.
Alluding to this concern, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said that during a mid-January visit to Washington "we will make it clear that we are opposed to any developments that threaten Turkey's integrity."
The INC has been lobbying official Washington for years. Its success in Congress is largely attributed to the efforts of Chalabi, born 56 years ago into a wealthy Iraqi Shiite family.
In 1997, Congress allocated $97 million to the INC for military training and equipment. That rankled Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Before retiring from the military last year, Zinni, now the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, criticized Congress' efforts to "let some silk-suited, Rolex-wearing guys in London gin up an expedition."
He said equipping a thousand fighters with $97 million worth of AK-47's and sending them into Iraq could end in failure like the 1961 attempt to overthrow Cuba's Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.
"What will we have? A Bay of Goats, most likely," Zinni wrote in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.
The INC has received no training or equipment, which upsets members of Congress, some of whom recently implored Bush to start military training for the INC and provide money for other activities.
Perle believes action against Iraq must be taken sooner, not later.
"Do we wait and hope that he doesn't do what we know he is capable of, which is distributing weapons of mass destruction to anonymous terrorists, or do we take pre-emptive action?" he asked.
"What is essential here is not to look at the opposition to Saddam as it is today, without any external support, without any realistic hope of removing that awful regime, but to look at what could be created."