WASHINGTON – The United States is trying to kill Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the war provides cover to carry out the type of assassination that is frowned upon in peacetime.
As U.S. officials pondered whether Saddam was inside the smoldering pit created by their bombs in Baghdad, there was no doubt they wanted to finish him off.
"I don't think there's any way this administration is not going to kill him," said Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Jennifer Kibbe, who studies covert action decision making. "Thed leader to end up on the U.S. short list for punishment, nor is he the first targeted for death -- Cuba's Fidel Castro is a notable example. But other leaders ousted in recent years, such as Manuel Noriega in Panama and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, ended up jailed, not dead.
The United States banned assassinations in 1976, under President Ford. President Reagan reinforced that edict five years later in an executive order that barred federal officials or those acting on behalf of the government from participating in assassinations or killer plots.
Since then -- and especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- there has been growing support for abolishing Reagan's order. Bush does have the power to revoke it. White House officials haven't said whether he has or will, but they have said in the past that Saddam and his close aides should not assume they are safe.
But those considerations are secondary now that war is under way. The war makes Saddam a military target, and killing him now would be easier and less dangerous than launching a commando raid to capture him, experts say. It also could be more politically expedient than allowing him to live and, possibly, engineer guerrilla warfare from exile or prison.
"If he's still alive, there are going to be Iraqis who are scared to speak their minds, scared to work with a new government," Kibbe said. "You'd have the Fedayeen or the Republican Guard, some of whom might feel it's worth it to fight a guerrilla war, whereas if he's dead they might give up."
Jim Phillips, a Heritage Foundation expert on Iraq, said U.S. leaders may actually prefer to take Saddam prisoner but that could mean heavy casualties because Saddam has strong security. Also, the nature of the intelligence the United States receives on Saddam suggests officials know where he is only for short periods of time.
Most important, Phillips suggested, American credibility would be dented if Saddam remained free. "If Saddam Hussein escaped, people would be saying, 'Why didn't you hit that bunker when you had the chance?' The sooner they get Saddam, the sooner Iraqi resistance will collapse and the more lives will be saved on all sides," Phillips said.
U.S. success in killing Saddam would be unlikely to draw global outrage. In Iran on Tuesday, students holding an anti-war protest outside the British Embassy in Tehran chanted "Death to Saddam" along with the standard "Death to America."
Syria, the only Arab nation on the U.N. Security Council and an opponent of the war, was more concerned Tuesday about the Iraqi civilians killed in Tuesday's attack than it was about Saddam.
"I hope they don't keep killing thousands of people saying they want to kill Saddam Hussein," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shaaban.