As American air and ground forces close in on Baghdad, teams of CIA paramilitary and Special Forces operatives are waging a quieter, unseen war in Iraq's shadows.
They're stealing secret information, seizing key sites such as oil fields, "painting" targets for airstrikes, and even helping stage dramatic rescues - like the swoop into a Nasiriyah hospital early yesterday to rescue young Pfc. Jessica Lynch. (See story)
But perhaps their most important mission remains setting ambushes and other traps for top officials. Whatever the results of the March 20 strike against a site thought to hide Saddam Hussein and his sons, US secret forces continue their efforts to "decapitate" Iraq's ruling regime.
"That is certainly the strategy now," says retired Brig. Gen. John Reppert. "And decapitation as a strategy works well beyond Saddam Hussein. It takes in his Revolutionary Council, leaders of his Baath Party, and below that, the four divisions of the Republican Guard plus the one Special Republican Guard unit."
Officials familiar with the CIA's Iraq war effort say there are about 20 agency paramilitary personnel in Baghdad. They're trying to collect information that could prove whether Mr. Hussein is now alive or dead. Against the possibility that he is still alive, they also continue to stake out the presidential palaces, civilian residences, and military compounds where Hussein and his sons are known to have lived and slept.
It was these teams, dropped into Iraq well before the war began, who "reached out and formed relationships with members of Hussein's regime that might become informers," says a former intelligence official with years of experience in this region. And it was those informers who provided the exact location for Hussein and his sons that instigated the March 20 strike.
But Baghdad isn't the CIA's only theater of operations. Special teams have assisted in a wide range of missions throughout the country:
• They dropped in and secured oil fields in the south, greatly diminishing Iraq's ability to mine and destroy those oil wells.
• They entered the western part of Iraq and disabled Iraqi missile-launching systems that could have targeted both Israel and Jordan.
• They are working with Kurdish militias to guide airstrikes on parts of northern Iraq still under Hussein's control.
• And in one of the most dramatic operations of this war, CIA operatives, embedded in the most significant military units, provided intelligence to the Special Operations forces that led to the rescue of Ms. Lynch. It was a CIA tip that sent Navy SEALs and Army Rangers to the hospital where she was being held.
That the CIA specifically, and the US military in general, is still undertaking an effort to decapitate the Iraqi regime is obvious from its daily choice of targets. Early yesterday, for example, airstrikes were called in on the palace used by Qusay, Hussein's younger son, who is commander of the forces protecting the capital. And the US pummeled Iraq's Olympics office, headed up by Hussein's elder son, Uday.
At nearly the same time, marine troops in the south near the town of Nasiriyah raided the headquarters of Hussein's southern commander, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "chemical Ali" because of his role in a chemical-weapons attack against Iraqi Kurds.
And other airstrikes over the past two days have been directed at Baath Party headquarters throughout the country, telephone exchanges, and media outlets.
Those were likely called in by CIA paramilitary and Special Operations teams, who have played an extensive role in selecting targets for all branches of the military.
The other thing they're doing, says the former covert intelligence officer, is setting up ambushes for the Iraqi leadership.
"They're not just waiting to call in airstrikes; they'll do their own work as well," he says, meaning they will sabotage buildings, set off explosions, or shoot to kill. "The one thing they want to do," he says, "is to re-create the same situation that occurred [March 20]," when specific intelligence provided a target of opportunity.
"They want to know where he is so they can call in fire on him," says this source.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, among others, has stepped up public questioning of whether Hussein is alive. This is partly an effort to goad the Iraqi leader - if he is alive - into rising from his bunker to make a statement, so he can be targeted.
On Tuesday, some in the government thought Hussein had risen to this bait following the snap announcement by Iraq that he would make a statement on TV. Upon viewing the Iraqi Information Minister walk on stage to read a statement in Hussein's stead, one US official watching the scene uttered a mild oath.
There are still many - especially in the military - who believe that if Iraqis know their leader is gone, they will capitulate. But others think US leaders have miscalculated, and may be in this for the long haul.
"One of the biggest miscalculations is that they're going to be so happy to see us as liberators," says Judith Yaphe, an expert on Iraq at the National Defense University. "They see it as foreign occupation and invasion."