"We're Taking Him Out"

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Two months ago, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators went to the White House to meet with Condoleezza Rice, the President's National Security Adviser. Bush was not scheduled to attend but poked his head in anyway — and soon turned the discussion to Iraq. The President has strong feelings about Saddam Hussein (you might too if the man had tried to assassinate your father, which Saddam attempted to do when former President George Bush visited Kuwait in 1993) and did not try to hide them. He showed little interest in debating what to do about Saddam. Instead, he became notably animated, according to one person in the room, used a vulgar epithet to refer to Saddam and concluded with four words that left no one in doubt about Bush's intentions: "We're taking him out."

Dick Cheney carried the same message to Capitol Hill in late March. The Vice President dropped by a Senate Republican policy lunch soon after his 10-day tour of the Middle East — the one meant to drum up support for a U.S. military strike against Iraq. As everyone in the room well knew, his mission had been thrown off course by the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But Cheney hadn't lost focus. Before he spoke, he said no one should repeat what he said, and Senators and staff members promptly put down their pens and pencils. Then he gave them some surprising news. The question was no longer if the U.S. would attack Iraq, he said. The only question was when.

The U.S. appears ready to do whatever it takes to get rid of the Iraqi dictator once and for all. But while there is plenty of will, there still is no clearly effective way to move against Saddam. Senior Administration officials at the highest levels of planning say there are few good options. Saddam's internal security makes a successful coup unlikely. The Iraqi opposition is weak and scattered. And this is a war that the rest of the world, with the possible exception of Britain, is not eager for America to wage. While key allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, would be more than happy to see Saddam go, they are too busy worrying about their own angry citizens — and quietly profiting from trade with Iraq — to help. A senior Arab official needed only one word to sum up the region's view of any possible military action: "Ridiculous." Yet Cheney gave the Senate policy lunch a very different view. He said the same European and Middle Eastern allies who publicly denounce a possible military strike had privately supported the idea.

Maybe so, but even the Administration has conceded that the Middle East crisis has shoved action against Iraq onto the back burner. When the White House announced a Middle East peace conference last week, a senior Administration official said, "This is a detour, and we have to get around it." Hard-liners, however, think delaying an attack against Saddam because of the Middle East conflict simply means giving him breathing space to perfect his weapons of mass destruction. "Time is not on our side, and Saddam is running out the clock," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank.

Though there is a near consensus in Washington that the U.S. can no longer afford the failed containment policy of the past decade, which consisted of sanctions, no-fly zones in the north and south and periodic bombings, there is no real agreement on how or how quickly to achieve "regime change" in Iraq. For all the tough talk along the Potomac, the only war now being waged is the one involving the White House, State Department and Pentagon over how and when to move against Saddam.

A front-page story in the New York Times on April 28 claimed that Bush had all but settled on a full-scale ground invasion of Iraq early next year with between 70,000 and 250,000 U.S. troops. But military and civilian officials insist that there is no finalized battle plan or timetable — and that Bush has not even been presented with a formal list of options. Instead, the Times story, with its vision of a large-scale troop deployment, seems to have been the latest volley in the bureaucratic war at home, leaked by uniformed officers who think some of their civilian overseers have been downplaying the size and difficulty of an attack.

Still, planning for some kind of military action is clearly under way. Earlier this year, Bush signed a supersecret intelligence "finding" that authorized further action to prepare for Saddam's ouster. Mindful of widespread concern that a post-Saddam Iraq could quickly be torn apart by ethnic violence and regional meddling, the White House is increasing its efforts to devise a workable replacement government.

Over the past month, CIA and State Department officials have met with long-feuding Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani to help them bury the hatchet. At a top-secret gathering in Berlin in April, the CIA discussed with them how the U.S. could protect the Kurds if Saddam retaliated against them after a U.S. attack. Also on the U.S. agenda are critical logistical issues, from the condition of roads and airports in the area to how soon Iraqi exiles could be sent into training. (Late last week Barzani confirmed to Time that there was a meeting of Kurdish leaders in Berlin, but denied that the CIA was involved.) While the Kurds, whose forces number about 85,000, could act as a proxy army in the north, they are wary of sacrificing their newfound autonomy (their land is protected by the northern no-fly zone, which is patrolled by U.S. and British planes) for vague promises of a better future. But after watching how the minority Northern Alliance grabbed a major share of power in post-Taliban Afghanistan, they are now asking for a major role in any future Iraqi government, rather than just regional rights, as a price for their cooperation.

Invasion is not the only alternative being considered, but it is the most likely. Taking the Afghanistan campaign as their model, many proponents of action, including Senator John McCain, still believe that before the U.S. commits to a full-scale invasion, it's worth trying to overthrow Saddam in a proxy war with the help of a local opposition force much like the Northern Alliance, aided by American special forces and air power. But the Iraqi opposition, made up of Kurds in the north and Shi'ite Muslims in the south, is fragmented, largely untested and faced with an Iraqi army much larger and more sophisticated than the one the Northern Alliance helped vanquish in Afghanistan. Given Saddam's brutal record of using chemical weapons against the Kurds and the U.S.'s past failure to help rebelling Kurds as well as Shi'ites in the south, Iraqis would be understandably wary of heeding an American call to rise up.

While Ahmed Chalabi, the tweedy, M.I.T.-educated head of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, is the best-known member of the weak Iraqi opposition, he is not a unanimous choice to inherit the reins of power once Saddam is driven out. Though he enjoys some backing in the White House and the Pentagon, both the CIA and the State Department deride him as a divisive, autocratic blowhard. Since he is a Shi'ite Muslim, Chalabi is viewed with suspicion by many of Iraq's powerful Sunni neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia. The Administration has recently increased contacts with an array of opposition figures, including many military defectors, though a much anticipated conference was scuttled by infighting over who would run it.

The smoothest regime-change scenario — a coup from within Saddam's own military ranks — is the least likely. At least six such coups have been attempted in the past decade, and all have failed miserably. With internal intelligence and security services at his disposal, Saddam has recently stepped up the pace of military purges, shifting around or simply executing any popular, effective officer who posed a potential threat. That leaves classic warfare as the only real alternative to a proxy war.

Hawks like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Policy Board chief Richard Perle strongly believe that after years of American sanctions and periodic air assaults, the Iraqi leader is weaker than most people believe. Rumsfeld has been so determined to find a rationale for an attack that on 10 separate occasions he asked the CIA to find evidence linking Iraq to the terror attacks of Sept. 11. The intelligence agency repeatedly came back empty-handed. The best hope for Iraqi ties to the attack — a report that lead hijacker Mohamed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in the Czech Republic — was discredited last week.

If links between Iraq and the Sept. 11 conspirators are elusive, links to al-Qaeda may not be. In the past three years, an armed group of Islamic extremists now known as Ansar al-Islam, led in part by a suspected Iraqi intelligence agent, Abu Wa'el, has waged a terror campaign in Kurdistan. Most recently, in April, three militants tried to kill the Prime Minister of eastern Kurdistan just as a State Department official was visiting the region. "It was a message to the U.S.," says a Kurdish investigator. Many of the 700 to 800 members of the group were trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and have returned to Kurdistan since the fighting last year at Tora Bora, according to Kurdish officials.

With hard-liners seizing on such testimony as reason to attack, it falls to Secretary of State Colin Powell — whom many Administration hawks blame for preventing a march on Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War — to play the lonely diplomat. While batting down rumors that he is fed up and quitting, Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, are close to getting a new set of Iraqi sanctions at the U.N. But other Administration principals fear that Saddam is working his own U.N. angle for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, whose presence could make the U.S. look like a bully if it invades. "The White House's biggest fear is that U.N. weapons inspectors will be allowed to go in," says a top Senate foreign policy aide.

From the moment he took office, Bush has made noises about finishing the job his father started. Sept. 11 may have diverted his attention, but Iraq has never been far from his mind. By the end of 2001, diplomats were discussing how to enlist the support of Arab allies, the military was sharpening its troop estimates, and the communications team was plotting how to sell an attack to the American public. The whole purpose of putting Iraq into Bush's State of the Union address, as part of the "axis of evil," was to begin the debate about a possible invasion.

Though the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has certainly got in the way, it is not the only potential stumbling block. Bush still has to show anxious Arab allies that the U.S. wouldn't leave a mess for someone else to clean up — which some feel is happening in Afghanistan as the Pentagon refuses to allow international peacekeepers past Kabul city limits. Since the Administration has made it clear that the objective is Saddam's ouster, he has no reason to behave: on his last legs, the Iraqi ruler would seemingly have no reason not to launch missiles laden with chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops or Israeli cities.

Most important, Bush, unlike his father, has no big, bold provocation around which to build a coalition. Except for offering $25,000 bounties to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, Saddam has been trying to stay out of trouble. Everyone knows he's a bad guy and a long-term danger, but as Republican Senator Chuck Hagel wonders, "How urgent is the threat?" And, one might add, how does it compare with the others the U.S. is facing? To many observers, it's a stretch to link any attack on Iraq to the broader war on terrorism. By fostering more anti-American resentment, a long-term neo-colonial presence in Iraq could breed a new generation of suicide bombers ready to wreak havoc on the U.S.

Saudi Arabia might feel compelled to block the U.S. from using its staging bases, though the war could be launched largely from Kuwait in the south and Turkey in the north, with assists from Bahrain and Oman. The Pentagon is preparing for such an eventuality, building a sophisticated combined air operations center at Al Udeid air base in Qatar to replace the one in Saudi Arabia. But if Saddam waits for the conflict to come to Baghdad, this could be an urban, house-to-house battle unlike anything current U.S. troops have ever experienced.

If that sounds like another potential Somalia, it's easy to understand why the President, for all his tough talk, is not about to rush into anything. "Bush cannot embark on a mission that fails," says Geoffrey Kemp, a former member of President Reagan's National Security Council now at the Nixon Center in Washington. "Given what happened to his father and the hype in this Administration, it would be the end." And for Saddam, yet another new beginning.

— Reported by Massimo Calabresi, James Carney, John F. Dickerson, Mark Thompson, Douglas Waller and Adam Zagorin/Washington, Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Andrew Purvis/ Kurdistan