Target Saddam?

SADDAM HUSSEIN has been called a ruthless and inhumane tyrant, and since Jan. 16 he's done nothing to dispel the image. He's struck civilian targets with ballistic missiles, threatened to place prisoners of war near military targets, called for terrorism against coalition nations, and has severely damaged the Persian Gulf ecosystem by dumping crude oil directly into the water. Will Rogers, here's a man you might not have liked. Increasingly, the question is raised: Why not target Saddam? He is, after all, at the heart of the Iraqi military machine. The US-led coalition has nothing against the Iraqi people. Wouldn't the elimination of Saddam end the war and bring the troops home?

Some think it would. Yet so far the White House and the secretary of defense have been clear that Saddam the individual is not a target, at least not officially.

If Saddam were ``taken out'' in a bombing raid, few coalition tears would be shed. But the US president is being rightly statesmanlike (his own earlier, odd rhetoric against Saddam notwithstanding) in not publicly fixing the cross hairs of his military on a man, wicked as the man may seem.

Mr. Bush is also following tradition. The US has not publicly targeted individuals, even during World War II. (The 1989 war against Manuel Noriega came close; President Kennedy secretly targeted Castro.) But US policy is to condemn actions - Saddam's aggression - not persons.

Beyond this symbolic importance, there are other reasons to stick to military objectives, not personal targets. One does not know who will replace Saddam. It has been pointed out that had the allies eliminated Hitler in mid-war, German generals could have put up a much tougher and strategically sounder fight than Hitler, who became consumed by his own megalomaniacal plans. The war may have been much longer.

Whether Saddam has a cunning general who could stand behind his martyred leader is not known. In Vietnam the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969 did not bring an end to the war.

But coalition forces should use all opportunities to end the war quickly, with or without Saddam. If this means pausing before a ground war to seriously take stock of any new diplomatic possibilities, so much the better.

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