WASHINGTON – Loud and clear, the Bush administration has been putting out signals that there are plenty of ways to get rid of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
He could go into exile, his military could mutiny or Iraqis could stage a popular revolt. Those are a few options Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials have suggested publicly in the last two weeks as they made the case for ousting the dictator they say threatens the United States with weapons of mass destruction.
But while analysts praise the strategy of turning up the heat on the regime with tough talk, they fear the White House may have stepped over the line Tuesday with the suggestion that perhaps Saddam should be assassinated.
"Generally, administration officials refrain from talking so coarsely in openly advocating the murder of others,'' said James Lindsay of the Brookings Institution.
"It's gross,'' said Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are trying to get people to overthrow their own tyrant, but it could undermine that strategy.''
They referred to a comment by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer that assassination — or Saddam's voluntary exile — would be cheaper than a war in Iraq.
Fleischer was asked about a Congressional Budget Office estimate that fighting a full-scale war to unseat Saddam could cost the United States as much as $9 billion a month.
"I can only say that the cost of a one-way ticket is substantially less than that,'' Fleischer said. "The cost of one bullet, if the Iraqi people take it on themselves, is substantially less than that.''
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott took issue with Fleischer, telling CNN on Wednesday: "It certainly would be easier and would be cheaper but we do have an executive order in America on the books that says that we don't assassinate leaders of other countries in the world, whether we like it or not.''
Though more blunt than some others, Fleischer's comments are only the latest in a pattern of messages delivered by the administration in speeches, press conferences and testimony on Capitol Hill.
Rumsfeld has publicly suggested at least three times in the last couple of weeks that Saddam might be allowed to go into exile with his family.
"It would be wonderful if we picked up tomorrow's paper and read that Saddam Hussein decided to leave and go somewhere in some other country with his family and a few close, intimate friends,'' Rumsfeld said in a speech last week in Atlanta.
He was apparently referring to Saddam, his ruling clique and two sons whom few governments would like to see as Saddam's successors.
Two weeks ago, worried that Saddam was planning to have his military men strike with biological or chemical weapons, Rumsfeld warned them to disobey orders and save themselves instead.
"The people (to whom) he says, `Go do it,' better think very carefully about whether that's how they want to handle their lives,'' Rumsfeld told a Senate panel.
Like Fleischer, Rumsfeld has suggested the Iraqi population could help hasten the toppling of Saddam. Asked last week how long a war in Iraq might take, Rumsfeld said that "depends on the extent to which the Iraqi people will learn that they have the opportunity to be liberated.''
Lindsay said officials are hoping that once a war begins Iraqis will "conclude that Saddam is a dead man walking and that will embolden them'' to turn on the government.
"Would that happen? It certainly could,'' Lindsay said. "And if it does, it makes America's war that much easier.''
It was the "one bullet'' comment that raised eyebrows.
"Clearly the administration has taken off the muzzle in terms of how it's going to talk about this war,'' Lindsay said. "Perhaps if they talk loud enough and long enough, the need to go to war will evaporate.''
"I think it's a reasonable strategy and a good strategy to try to turn Iraq into a pressure cooker and see if you can get them to stage a coup against Saddam,'' Gelb said of Iraq's troops. "They've got to make Iraqis with power and arms feel that we're coming and they can either live with us or go down with Saddam.''
He said the comment on assassination could turn off people who otherwise would support regime change in Iraq.
Fleischer noted that President Bush has not made the decision to start a war to oust Saddam.
He said there are many options "the United States is prepared to see, and the president has said the military option is not his first choice.''
The one option that most defense officials and experts say they don't really see as a possibility is that of exile.
Pentagon officials said it wasn't clear whether the suggestion of exile was meant as a signal to Saddam — or simply a bow to allies who would like to see the United States try harder at non-war options.