For all the talk of US military supremacy, the success of the war in Iraq will pivot in part on something far more tenuous - a needle-in-a-haystack search.
The ability of US forces to find Saddam Hussein and his ruling clique, as well as any weapons of mass destruction or Scud missiles he might harbor, will help determine the length of the war and the number of casualties that may result on both sides. It will also help shape political perceptions after the war.
Those efforts won't necessarily require huge amounts of firepower, but will involve on-the-ground intelligence, precision strikes, and more than a little serendipity.
Take Mr. Hussein, for instance. The 40 Tomahawk missiles that the US fired Wednesday night to officially start the war were intended to take out the Iraqi leader and whoever else he might have been huddling with. Did it work?
US officials yesterday were still trying to figure that out. They were pouring over the broadcast tape of Hussein shown shortly after the attacks to determine if it was really him or a body double. If they did get him, it may end up being an assassination by Cruise missile more than a war.
If they didn't, it's a reminder of how difficult it might be to find Hussein and members of his inner circle once the chaos of war is in full swing. US officials, for now, seem confident of getting the Iraqi leader. "If we didn't get him, he needs to be concerned with what the US government may know about his location at any time," a US official says. "It sends a strong signal to Saddam Hussein that we're onto him."
Hussein can be wily, though. He is known to have three body doubles whose facial features have been surgically altered to make them look exactly like the Iraqi dictator. He has more than 50 palaces, as well as hundreds of bunkers with networks of tunnels connecting them. Hussein is known to occasionally spend the night in private residences, and he never sleeps in the same bed two nights in a row. Add to that a personal security detail of 16,000 fiercely loyal warriors.
From the opening salvos, US forces will be trying to separate the Iraqi leadership from the people. Other than killing Hussein outright, the US could try to cut him off so thoroughly from his military leadership that they, themselves, take his life. That, in effect, will create the regime change that is the primary goal of the Bush administration.
The other crucial and immediate aim - to be carried out by airstrikes and Special Forces, plus CIA paramilitary teams already operating inside Iraq - is to search out and destroy weapons of mass destruction, as well as the infamous Scud missiles so effectively employed in the 1991 Gulf War and already fired at Kuwait yesterday.
"The remnants of Saddam Hussein's coterie, his security forces, have to be totally disbanded," says a former Army commander who participated in the 1991 Gulf War and still advises Pentagon planners. "And I think the finding and destruction of WMD certainly has to be one of those metrics we look at as far as measurements are concerned."
Still, no one expects any parts of these missions to be easy. Hussein knows this may be the end for him, and both military and outside experts say he is likely to try anything when backed into a corner. The expectation is that he will hunker down in his bunkers and draw the war on as long as possible. He would likely unleash any chemical or biological weapons his forces may be capable of using. And some predict he could even unleash them on his own civilians and try to make it look as though the US is the perpetrator.
"Once we start an attack, Hussein doesn't have any incentive to restrain himself," says Frank Anderson, a former CIA Near East division chief with several years experience in the region. "The limits on what he will do are his capabilities rather than any other considerations."
But US intelligence services have had a long time to study his habits and identify his hideouts. And Pentagon planners have devised means to penetrate his fortressed bunkers.
Several Special Forces and CIA paramilitary teams are already operating inside Iraq's borders. In addition, thousands of special forces troops are to be dropped in as the "shock and awe" bombing campaign begins, according to retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led a major ground force operation in the 1991 Gulf war.
The Special Forces and paramilitary teams will be targeting leadership facilities, as well as sites that may contain weapons of mass destruction.
Intelligence officials and outside experts say Hussein has squandered millions of his UN oil-for-food money to build fortified palatial compounds - some encompassing as many as 90 buildings. And a German firm reportedly was paid $150 million to build a bunker 100 feet underground that can endure missile and bomb blasts.
In addition, he has the 16,000 fiercely loyal members of the Special Republican Guard and Special Security Organization. They are likely to go to any length to protect Hussein, because ultimately, they know, their future is linked to his.
Still, the US may not have to capture or kill Hussein to be successful. They only need to separate him from the military. Even if he were to escape to another country, he doesn't command the reverence of followers the way Osama bin Laden does.
"Once he is out of the seat of power, his Army will no longer listen to him," says Jesswald Salacuse, an expert in conflict resolution at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "And if he goes outside his country, he will not be able to reassert himself as a leader of Iraq."
Many don't think he'll run anyway. "I think he'll stay there and fight to the finish," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraqi expert at the National Defense University. "[Hussein] despised the shah [of Iran]for running; he thought that was really the wrong thing to do. Besides, where could he go?"