Hussein may dodge US hunt
From Osama bin Laden to Pancho Villa, the US has always struggled to neutralize high-profile foes.
If played out on the silver screen, an American manhunt for Saddam Hussein would have a predictable end: John Rambo would penetrate Baghdad, track the Iraqi leader to his deeply buried bunker, and carry out the White House policy of "regime change" with a single bullet and then make a safe getaway.Skip to next paragraph
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But while the tidy world of the movies may appear to shape some US options for Iraq, former American military officers and analysts warn that going after Mr. Hussein to "cut off the head" of the Iraqi regime may prove to be Mission Impossible.
From recent manhunts in Somalia and Afghanistan and even during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Hussein was a reportedly a target of US Special Forces American bounty hunters have rarely come home with the prize. Osama bin Laden remains unaccounted for despite a massive US military effort and President Bush's declared wish to find him "dead or alive." Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar is believed to be still on the run in central Afghanistan.
Poor intelligence has defeated nearly every recent effort. And few predict suc- cess in Iraq, where Rambo wannabes face a capital city of some five million people, in a country peppered with dozens of presidential "palaces," going after a man who shares his public life with three known body-doubles and who has been hiding for more than a decade.
"Our human intelligence is appalling, and it hasn't gotten any better," says Joseph Hoar, a retired four-star US Marines general and former commander in chief of US Central Command.
"The only way we'll know what's going on in Baghdad is if someone stands up in a parking lot with a sign over their head, faced up to the sky, saying: 'Saddam is at such-and-such an address,' " says General Hoar, in a telephone interview from Dubai. "We'll take a picture of it."
While American technical abilities to monitor, listen to, and see from a distance have leapt in the past decade, specialists say that nothing substitutes for having operatives on the ground.
Key details about Iraq were, in fact, gleaned by American agents operating under cover with the United Nations Special Commission, which was tasked to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. In 1998 they helped the UN survey a string of presidential sites, but reportedly had their own task of learning how the Iraqi leadership protects and hides itself.
"I suppose they have a lot of information [about those sites]," says Hoar. "But the thing we rarely get is predictive intelligence, where we have an insider who knows what people are thinking, and how they are going to act."
Hit squads are "pie in the sky," Hoar says. "Hit what, in a city this size, with all the presidential palaces and doubles, and a guy that sleeps in a different place every night, who trusts no one but his own family? The people who think this is going to be easy have been watching too many television shows."
Vulnerable or not, the US has marked Hussein as a target. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared in October that the Iraqi people could take care of Hussein with "a bullet" and avoid a costly war. President Bush has personalized the fight, saying of the Iraqi leader, "He tried to kill my dad."
And though officially denied, US units during the Gulf War tried to assassinate Hussein himself, but never came close.
"No one can tell you we weren't trying to kill Saddam. We were, and that's a fact," says a former senior Special Forces officer with firsthand experience of those Gulf War operations. "We weren't very good because he is a [master] at deception, and keeping his presence low-profile.
"There were some concerted efforts to get the guy," the officer says. "But the idea was to try to get him with a bomb so it looked like an accident. It was: 'Let's get his location, and let's put a smart bomb through the window.'"
Americans involved in the Panama campaign in 1989 admit that luck played an important role in capturing Gen. Manuel Noriega. But noting that during World War II, the allies failed in an attempt to kill Gen. Erwin Rommel in north Africa, and the British failed in attempts to assassinate Hitler, the officer puts US chances of conducting a successful manhunt in Iraq bar "getting lucky" at "slim to none."