WASHINGTON -- As they began an opening blitzkrieg to drop 3,000 bombs on Iraq, some U.S. military planners believe that the best chance for toppling Saddam Hussein through air attacks is to destroy his inner rings of security and expose the Iraqi leader to an uprising by his own people.
Of course, many Pentagon officials are crossing their fingers that one of the bombs will hit Saddam, effectively ending the war before it has completely begun. It would also eliminate the messy problem of what to do with Hussein if he were captured alive.
But while military targeting teams have spent months combing through intelligence on Iraq to pick palaces, bunkers and other facilities where Saddam might take cover, this silver-bullet scenario is regarded as an extreme long shot.
Instead, according to one senior Air Force officer, the air plan for Iraq calls for an intensified version of the 1998 Desert Fox strategy to undermine Saddam: They will heavily target barracks, command posts and other facilities of the security forces most directly responsible for protecting him.
That, it is hoped, will crack the protective shell and create opportunities for members of his own regime to carry out a coup.
U.S. military and intelligence officials say Hussein is an amazingly elusive figure and that the United States rarely gets even glimpses of when he moves, where he hides and how he communicates.
"I don't think anybody's ever had a good idea of where he is at any given moment, or where he will be in the future," one military intelligence official said Wednesday. "I don't think you'll ever have good information on that."
That admission, echoed by other officials, helps to explain why eliminating Saddam with an airstrike is seen by military planners as worth trying, but not something to build the air campaign around.
If Hussein eludes U.S. efforts to target him, it would follow a pattern in recent decades in which the United States has been able to overwhelm enemy forces but has struggled or failed to catch or kill individual leaders -- from Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Pentagon officials are quick to point out that the stated objectives of the war are "regime change" in Iraq, and the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction. Asked Wednesday whether bombings will specifically target the Iraqi leader and his key aides, a senior military official said that "is something we prefer to keep ambiguous."
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told reporters that victory in the war would be defined by disarming Iraq, not eliminating Saddam.
But other officials, Pentagon advisers and commanders of the 1991 Persian Gulf War said there is no question that the United States would seize any opportunity to end the war early with an airstrike on Saddam.
In fact, the United States attacked a vehicle in the first Gulf War based on intelligence that it was one Saddam routinely used, only to learn later that Saddam's security forces managed a small fleet of such vehicles and the Iraqi leader escaped unharmed.
"We tried to smoke him. We didn't get him," said a former senior intelligence official.
U.S. officials also hoped to hit Saddam in 1998, when then-President Clinton ordered four days of airstrikes on facilities in Baghdad after U.N. weapons inspectors were withdrawn.
Current and former intelligence officials said the United States has never had a good bead on Hussein. One former official said he is one of "the most elusive people" the United States has ever faced. Saddam has surrounded himself with layers of security.
He is believed to employ several look-alikes as decoys. His movements are hidden even from his most senior advisers, and he rarely stays in one location more than a night or two.
Saddam has also spent a fortune building dozens of palaces, and an elaborate network of tunnels under the city of Baghdad, as well as bunkers that are believed to be impenetrable to all but the most potent U.S. bombs.
The closest the United States has ever come to penetrating Saddam's inner circle may have been in the late 1990s, when U.S. spy agencies took advantage of the weapons inspection programs to install sensors and listening devices.
One former inspector, Scott Ritter, has said the United States learned a good deal during that period about how Saddam's security apparatus worked and communicated. But those collection capabilities are said to have dried up considerably since 1998.
At the United Nations last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played audiotapes of intercepted Iraqi military communications. Some experts believe those intercepts wouldn't have been possible without listening posts inside Iraq. But the voices on the tape were of mid-level military figures speaking over channels that Saddam and his senior aides would avoid.
If the odds of hitting Saddam are any better in the pending war, it is largely because of the volume of munitions that are expected to be used, and the precision with which they are capable of hitting their targets.
Col. Gary Crowder, a senior Air Force commander, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that plans call for the unleashing of 10 times the number of bombs and missiles used in the opening days of the Gulf War.
"I do not think our adversary has any idea what's coming," Crowder said.
What's more, the vast majority of the munitions to be used in the coming war are precision-guided, while just 10 percent were in 1991.
Much of that aerial onslaught will be aimed at communications, transportation, air defense and military targets. Crowder said the precision weapons will enable the United States to disable Iraqi military and communications systems with fewer strikes and less damage to surrounding structures.
"The point here is we don't have to attack everything, nor do we have to destroy everything," Crowder said.
"Baghdad will not look like Dresden," he said, referring to devastation wrought by the carpet bombing of the German city in World War II.
If Hussein were to be killed by an airstrike early on, experts said it could bring the war to an almost immediate end if the news spread quickly among the Iraqi population.
Although an executive order signed by President Ford in the 1970s bans assassinations by the United States, Pentagon officials and legal experts said attempts on Saddam would be justified as strikes on enemy "command and control" elements.
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