Listen to government officials in Washington and London, chat with members of the alphabet soup of Iraqi exile groups, and you can come away thinking that such conversations are a dime a dozen. And they may be. In small ways and big ones, the U.S. and its allies are working like termites to undermine the rickety foundations of Saddam's rule. As the U.N. weapons inspectors started their work inside Iraq and President George W. Bush conferred with possible coalition partners at meetings in Prague and Moscow, it was easy to miss a story taking place behind the scenes. Whatever timetable the U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraqi disarmament may imply, and whatever Saddam may or may not do to cough up his weapons of mass destruction, people in the know are behaving as if a war to unseat the regime in Baghdad has already begun.
America's recent combat experiences in the Balkans and Afghanistan have confirmed for the Pentagon the virtues of psychological warfare and political initiatives in weakening the enemy before battle. These days the U.S. Army likes to say it is committed to "softening up the battlefield." Iraq is being softened up in many different ways. For one, following a Presidential Decision Directive on Oct. 3, the U.S. started a program to train up to 5,000 Iraqi exiles for possible missions in Iraq that could assist American combat troops. There is action inside Iraq too. A senior intelligence official tells Time that the U.S. has contacted groups that may be capable of sabotage before full-scale hostilities start. The U.S., says this official, is opening up lines to "people who can do World War II-style resistance, breaking up the infrastructure of communications and command." In a program that links intelligence, diplomacy, psychological warfare and military action, Saddam is being squeezed. "I see it as poking," says a State Department official. "Let's poke this pressure point and see what happens; let's see what reaction we get."
To hear U.S. officials tell it, this war before the war brings a double benefit. On the one hand, it prepares the ground if a full-blown invasion proves necessary. On the other hand, it just may be enough to topple Saddam without having to bomb Iraq and march into Baghdad. "We've embarked on steps that help us prepare for a military option inside Iraq," says the State Department official, "but that don't constitute a crossing of the Rubicon. None of these steps are irreversible, and all of them could help promote the longer-term destabilization of Saddam's government."