The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would mark a major victory for U.S. foreign policy, but U.S. exporters could be among the last to benefit from the downfall of the Iraqi leader, experts say.

Current and former U.S. officials agree that the chances of getting rid of Mr. Hussein are better now than at any time since Iraqi forces were driven

from Kuwait in 1991. But a U.S. role in rebuilding Iraq's shrunken economy would depend entirely upon the nature of a successor regime.The Clinton administration distrusts the idea of a takeover by Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel Hassan, one of two sons-in-law of Mr. Hussein who defected to Jordan earlier this month. The former chief of Iraq's military-industrial complex has been ranked No. 5 on a list of war criminals by opposition groups, said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A power shift to Mr. Kamel would be little improvement from the U.S. standpoint, although it could accelerate the lifting of U.N. trade sanctions. Iraq would then be free to resume oil exports, earning cash to buy the goods it desperately needs.

But whether the United States would quickly ease its own trade curbs or join in rebuilding may be another matter.

"If the U.S. agrees to lift sanctions, that implies that we're ready to do business there," said another official, although he declined to predict the level of U.S. participation without knowing the intentions of Iraq's new leaders.

The rise of "Saddamism without Saddam" is unlikely to elicit U.S. support or open the Iraqi market to American interests, said Richard Haass, former National Security Council aide, now director of national security programs at the Council on Foreign Relations.

U.S. political standards for a new government in Baghdad are seen as far more particular than those of Russia or France, both of which have discussed oil development deals with Iraq, contingent upon ending U.N. sanctions. Officials agree that both nations will have a head start on reconstruction contracts if the next Iraqi government is less than ideal from a U.S. point of view.

Iraq owes an estimated $7 billion to Russia and billions more to France for arms delivered before the embargo. Mr. Haass said the two nations see the chance of a "twofer" in Iraq, reaping both repayment and sales.

The rebirth of the Iraqi market could follow many possible paths, depending on the regime and the foreign response. Rejuvenation of the country's oil industry would be a priority, opening up huge opportunities for providers of oil field equipment and services.

Iraq pumped some 2.5 million barrels of oil a day before the Gulf War. Morris Adelman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus and oil expert, has said Baghdad could produce 3 million barrels a day within a year to 18 months after sanctions end. A flood of imports could follow quickly to relieve the scarcity of the past four years.

A U.N. official who has visited Iraq said Monday that shortages have affected virtually everything. An estimated 4 million of the country's 19 million people are in need of food assistance. In Iraq's hospitals, there is little medicine or basic surgical supplies. Medical equipment has been cannibalized. Even elevators have ceased to work.

The country needs water purification and sanitation equipment, chlorine, pesticides, fertilizer and materials to replace destroyed schools, said the official.

While Iraq has rebuilt infrastructure damaged during the war, many repairs may be only temporary, said Jeremy Pressman, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"A lot of it is patch jobs, absolutely," said the U.N. official, who asked not to be named. "You can pretty much start from scratch."

The misery contrasts starkly with Iraq's past and its potential as a future market.

"It's the only Arab country that essentially has it all - people, water, oil, a relatively educated work force. It represents an attractive market, for sure," Mr. Haass said.

There are no economic figures available to chart the country's decline. An International Monetary Fund official estimated Iraq's prewar gross domestic product at between $65 billion and $70 billion. It is believed to be only a small fraction of that now.

One measure of the disaster is the drop in the Iraq's once-proud currency, the dinar, which traded at 3.2 times the value of the dollar in 1989, a rate it still maintains officially. Last month, the dinar reportedly plunged to 1,450 to the dollar on the black market as food prices soared. The rate implies inflation of over 450,000 percent since the war.

While renewed oil exports would reverse the slide, it is unclear how the revenue would be divided. Imports would have to be paid for, but so would compensation for war damages, foreign claims, debt and the costs of the U.N. Special Commission (Unscom), which is charged with assuring that weapons of mass destruction are destroyed.

The IMF reckoned Iraq's prewar foreign debt at $75 billion. Iraq has acknowledged only $42.1 billion of it, a discrepancy that will be subject to claims. But the United States is expected to be the toughest of all Baghdad's creditors, a stance likely to make U.S. suppliers the last to gain access to the Iraqi market.

The Department of Agriculture's Commodities Credit Corp. is still owed $2 billion for guaranteed grain sales to Iraq. Some $1.4 billion of Iraqi funds remains frozen in U.S. bank accounts, although $200 million has been lent to Unscom, said a Treasury official. Claims against the funds could be as high as $5 billion, he said.

Sanctions-lifting may also face long delays, no matter who succeeds Mr. Hussein. Rolf Ekeus, chairman of Unscom, said on Monday's MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour that the commission must review some 1 million pages of newly obtained weapons documents.