WASHINGTON—America's predawn attack on what Pentagon officials called "leadership targets" in Baghdad was a bold and unexpected beginning to President Bush's even bolder campaign to disarm Iraq and install democracy in place of Saddam Hussein's brutal dictatorship.
After months of preparing America, Iraq and the world for a devastating air and ground blitzkreig, Bush switched signals at the last minute and attempted to kill Saddam, his sons and his most trusted aides in an effort to spare thousands of other lives, American, allied and Iraqi.
Even after Saddam appeared on Iraqi television Thursday morning, it was unclear if the address was live or taped or if the attack had killed any of Iraq's top leaders.
Intelligence officials predicted that even if Saddam were dead, Iraqi officials would try to conceal the fact from their countrymen and the world. And although clandestine American teams have been eavesdropping on Iraqi communications and prowling around Iraq for more than a month, intelligence officials concede that sighting Saddam isn't easy, in part because he employs body doubles and rarely sleeps in the same place two nights in a row.
Nevertheless, the president and his top aides concluded in an Oval Office meeting Wednesday afternoon that killing the Iraqi leader, and perhaps also his sons Uday and Qusay and the top members of his Revolutionary Command Council, was worth a try. If they succeeded, said a senior administration official, the entire Iraqi military—not just its ill-equipped and demoralized conscript army, might fold without a fight.
That would spare American troops the danger of facing chemical and biological weapons and the unpleasant prospect of house-to-house fighting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Just as important, Bush and his aides decided, it might spare Iraq thousands of civilian casualties, deaths that Muslim radicals could use to recruit new terrorists. It also might avoid a spasm of revenge killings, untold economic and environmental damage and civil wars that could tear the country apart and unnerve its neighbors.
"It might be the most brilliant war plan that has ever been devised," said retired Adm. Leighton Smith, a former commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and former commander of NATO forces in southern Europe.
He said that if the quick attempt to decapitate the regime failed, the United States could go back to the "shock-and-awe" approach.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if all of this came to a conclusion without a massive strike? I don't know if it can."
Neither did Bush, CIA Director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and others who helped put the strike plan together in about five hours.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.