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.
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."
"An embattled leader who is canny, streetwise, and with paranoia that works with him everyday, so he's thinking up new stuff to keep you from knowing where he is and what he is thinking, is hard to get," the veteran says. "Most leaders who have been assassinated have been assassinated while they were thinking of something else, not their own preservation."
Hussein has been obsessed with his own preservation throughout the more than three decades of rule.
US officials say they want to focus their search for any residual weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and, by extension, the Iraqi leader on eight presidential "palaces"; three in Baghdad, and the rest spread near Hussein's birthplace 90 miles north, at Tikrit, and in other Iraqi cities.
But these eight opulent sites are vast, and collectively incorporate more than 1,000 structures over an area of about 12 square miles, according to the UN, whose weapons inspectors surveyed each one in 1998. Rich with swimming pools and entire self-contained outdoor landscapes, mansions, and presumably underground fixtures, these places are populated by countless sculpted and painted images of Hussein.
A British "dossier" on Iraq's WMD capabilities released last month shows the relative size of one site, by superimposing an outline of a tiny Buckingham Palace on a satellite photograph of one site. Experts at globalsecurity.org estimate 57 such "palaces" exist in Iraq.
"The key point is patience, and that means gathering intelligence," says Andy Messing, a retired Special Forces major who heads the National Defense Council Foundation in Washington, and advocates repealing US laws that prohibit assassination.
"Once you have the intelligence, everything else falls into place," Major Messing says. "You can't just jump up and send the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain Division to Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden, because those are big footprints.
"You don't attach 100 bells to the cow, if you want the cow to [stay hidden] in the pasture and that's what we did [in Afghanistan]," Messing adds.
If intelligence is too hard to come by, Messing suggests offering a $250 million reward, an offer of American citizenship to the "three tiers" of the assassin's family, and "protection of the first tier."
"[Hussein] wouldn't last a month," Messing predicts. "When you talk about bounty, you've got to be serious. People were rolling on the ground laughing" about the $5 million the US put on the head of Mr. bin Laden.
Laughter also greeted a UN offer in 1993, when it posted a $25,000 reward for Gen. Farrah Aidid, Somalia's strongest warlord, on a Wild West-style "Wanted" poster. American troops first landed on the beaches of Mogadishu to stop a famine in December 1992, performing what President George H.W. Bush called "God's work" at which Americans "cannot fail."
But US and UN plans for nation-building threatened General Aidid's power, and by mid-1993 the faceoff devolved into a manhunt. The "key to success" in Somalia as described by Delta Force commander William Garrison in a heavily blacked-out after-action report, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request was "timely, accurate and reliable intelligence."
Such intelligence proved to be rare as gold dust and may be a stark warning that can be applied to Iraq. Acting on false information from paid Somali agents, Delta commandos first fast-roped from helicopters into a UN compound. Next they hit a Western relief agency, prompting relief directors to take US commanders on a tour of Mogadishu, to point out "their" buildings.
A police chief in the UN-supported police force was picked up and pistol-whipped in another raid. Aidid lookalikes were also whisked away, to the amusement of Somalis.
"If I were hanging around a Third World city, and you approached me and said: 'How about providing me some information?' " says Hoar, the retired general. "I could string you along for a year and a half before you realized I was making it up."
The example of America's hunt in Mexico for the popular bandit leader Pancho Villa in 1916 may be a cautionary parable. President Woodrow Wilson sent nearly 11,000 men with more than 9,000 horses to find one man in difficult terrain.
"In 11 months we never caught sight of him. The only firefight was between the Americans and [Mexican] troops," Hoar says. "If World War I hadn't started, we'd still be down there."