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The men of Zaire's corrupt past and uncertain future // KABILA

As his dream of toppling Zaire's dictator neared reality, rebel leader Laurent Kabila traded his combat fatigues for pinstriped shirts and huddled with businessmen more often than with soldiers.

Kabila has kept his eye on the future during his seven-month rebellion to oust Mobutu Sese Seko, saying that military victories are easy compared to running Zaire's government and rebuilding its economy.

"If I can't do better than Mobutu, then our rebellion will have been a failure," said Kabila, whose name is pronounced loh-RAWN kah-BEE-lah.

So, as his forces swept westward across Zaire, Kabila made it a priority to begin repairing the economy that Mobutu had plundered. In the cities and provinces that the rebels call the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kabila reduced duties on most imports and exports, trimmed the civil service and tried to stop corruption.

He even began to woo foreign investors.

Kabila, 56, has said that he expects to step down after a yearlong transition to elections. But he has banned all political parties except his own, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the same thing Mobutu did after seizing power.

His reputation has been tarnished, too, by allegations that his soldiers have massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees.

"The jury is still out on Kabila," says Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "He needs a lot of seasoning in the democratic process."

Trained as a Marxist, Kabila led several failed revolts in the 1960s and 1970s. Che Guevara and 100 Cuban troops even came to help in 1964. But the Argentine guerrilla later bitterly criticized Kabila's jet-setting style, saying he avoided the front for chic hotels and bars.

Diplomats say Kabila then became a warlord, financing his politics by smuggling gold.

Forced into exile in the 1980s, Kabila was forgotten until he launched a new revolt in eastern Zaire last fall. At first, he said his guerrillas were fighting to secure rights for persecuted Zairians of Tutsi descent. But as Mobutu's forces folded, Kabila announced he would go all the way to Kinshasa.

Mwenze Kongola, Kabila's justice minister, insists that the rebel leader has shed his Marxist past. "I think he's changed a lot," Mwenze said. "I haven't heard him speak of a socialist approach to any of the problems we have."