With Usama bin Laden and Mullah Omar in hiding and the Taliban in tatters, U.S. officials are turning their eyes toward Saddam Hussein.

"This is not an argument about whether to get rid of Saddam Hussein. That debate is over. This is ... how you do it," a senior administration official told the Knight Ridder news service on condition of anonymity.

Though President Bush hasn't yet given the go-ahead for a military hit on his father's old foe, the U.S. government is gearing up to take out the Iraqi dictatorship as the next battle in the war on terror.

Bush very plainly called Iraq one of the points in the "axis of evil" that threatens world security, and Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted to the Senate Budget Committee Tuesday that getting rid of Saddam is now one of the administration's top priorities. Vice President Cheney is expected to seek diplomatic backing from Iraq's neighbors during an 11-nation tour of the Gulf region next month.

Using a three-pronged attack of military, diplomatic and covert actions, the idea is to topple Hussein and to render harmless the nuclear, chemical and biological-weapons programs that Bush has decided have become too dangerous to be allowed to continue. The CIA and the Pentagon are already drawing up plans. One CIA scheme includes plenty of spy games, information warfare, sabotage and tighter enforcement of the no-fly zones in the northern and southern parts of the country, the senior officials said.

Powell has implied that the other two "axes of evil," North Korean and Iran, won't require such stiff measures because the U.S. is engaging them diplomatically.

Iraqi opposition leaders in the last month have been huddling frequently with Pentagon, White House, CIA and State Department officials, though it's not clear what role the factious anti-Hussein Iraqi organizations would play.

An Iraq campaign would not be taken lightly by other nations. Russia and nearly all of Europe have been cool on the idea, saying they're disturbed by a spread of the war on terror. And a war with Baghdad could completely unravel the U.S. delicate diplomacy in the Middle East, where Muslim allies like Jordan have much to lose if Iraq is thrown into chaos. Washington might not be able to count on Saudi Arabian bases, or may feed anti-American sentiment as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues to burn hot.

But the Bush administration is determined to oust Hussein, even if it means doing so without the aid of America's closest allies, the officials said.

Last Thursday, Powell told a House of Representatives committee that "regime change" in Iraq "is something the United States might have to do alone."

Either way, a war in Iraq won't necessarily be as swift and relatively painless as the campaign in Afghanistan. In the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, onetime government Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack said that what worked in the mountainous Central Asian country wouldn’t fly in Hussein's nation.

"Trying to topple Saddam with an Afghan-style campaign would be risky and ill advised," he wrote.

He continued that invading Iraq would take up to 300,000 soldiers, 1,000 aircraft, and as many as five aircraft carrier battle groups.

The New York Post contributed to this report.