If his country is attacked, will Iraq's Saddam Hussein retaliate against the United States in some horrific way?
That question has grown more urgent of late, as the drumbeat of war gets louder and as a CIA report, declassified this week, concluded that a cornered President Hussein would more than likely unsheath his arsenal which includes chemical and biological weapons perhaps even in attacks on US soil.
With little reliable information coming from inside Iraq, it's not clear if Hussein has the ability to launch such attacks on his own. But the CIA assessment is that he may well attempt to retaliate via proxy, throwing his weight behind Al Qaeda or other terror groups in the region a view that is seconded by a wide array of intelligence and security analysts.
"The Iraqis really have got plans prepared," said retired US Gen. Wayne Downing, a former commander in chief of the US Special Operations Command, at a recent symposium on Iraq. "They are ready to take the war ... overseas. They would use whatever means they have to attack us."
These worries come on top of recent signs that Al Qaeda, known to have at least loose contacts with Iraq, is escalating its anti-US rhetoric and, possibly, its terrorist activity.
The terrorist network this week released two audiotapes, reportedly recorded by leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, that threatened more attacks against the US and its allies. And authorities are now linking the shooting death of a US marine Tuesday during military exercises in Kuwait to Al Qaeda.
General Downing, a former terrorism adviser to President Bush, wasn't explicit about what Iraq may be able to do here in the US, but he said it was likely that Saddam would attempt terrorist attacks and try to incite other Middle East groups.
Already Iraq has held meetings and joint training sessions with Al Qaeda and Hizbullah members, according to US officials. And for months Hussein has been paying the families of Palestinan suicide bombers $25,000 each.
Downing also cites the fact the Al Qaeda network believes it is entirely responsible for the economic downturn in the US. That view of its own power, he contends, as well as the US unleashing a military attack against another Muslim country, might lead other terrorist groups to join in. Those could include Hizbullah the Lebanon-based anti-Israel group that's backed by Iran and Syria and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Palestinian territories.
A former high-level CIA official with years of experience in the region agrees that any attack on Iraq is likely to motivate a lot of people in the region. One common aim, he says, may be the desire for "freedom" a word that has a dramatically different connotation in the Arab world than in the US. Iraqis, for instance, have experienced a century of foreign domination in their country and region. Freedom for them, he says, is about achieving the absence of foreign domination of their country.
Throwing off foreign domination is also what motivates both Hizbullah and Hamas, which are opposed to Israel's occupation of what they believe is their land.
Hizbullah and Hamas both are on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations. In fact, both US Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D) of Florida and US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have called Hizbullah the "A-team" of terrorist organizations.
The Hizbullah organization was spawned in the 1980s, in the aftermath of Israeli and Syrian invasions of Lebanon. US peacekeepers were sent there to keep Lebanese Muslims and Israeli forces apart. Hizbullah members hit US targets there twice, including an October 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks. It killed 241 Marines and prompted the Reagan administration to pull out.
Hamas, a political and social services group with a military wing, has claimed responsibility for the lion's share of suicide bombing attacks against Israel, including another yesterday in which one Israeli was killed and 12 were wounded. It has never hit a US target, although some Americans have died in the suicide bomb attacks inside Israel.
It's hard to predict how likely it is that these groups may attack. Both are highly visible and must know the US would pursue them with significant military might if they did attack.
Neither group has attacked targets in the US before. But both have killed Americans. And both are already extremely angry with the US for what they see as its unstinting support for Israel's heavy-handed campaign against Palestinians.
Many experts say it's not too far-fetched to think that Saddam could persuade members of these groups to carry out suicide bombings or other kinds of attacks on American interests abroad or even inside the US.
"Iraqi efforts to reach out to radical Palestinians seem to have reached a chord in the Palestinian community and raised considerable support for Saddam," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I would be concerned about the possibility that Saddam could use his increased support with the Palestinian community to find people to target Americans."
Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.