WASHINGTON - As they launched an opening attack last night, some U.S. military planners say the best chance for toppling Saddam Hussein through airstrikes is to destroy his inner rings of security and expose the Iraqi leader to an uprising by his own people.
Many Pentagon officials are crossing their fingers that one of the bombs will hit Hussein, effectively ending the war before it has completely begun. It would also eliminate the messy problem of what to do with Hussein if he were captured alive.
But while military targeting teams have spent months combing through intelligence on Iraq to pick palaces, bunkers and other facilities where Hussein might take cover, this "silver-bullet" scenario is regarded as an extreme long shot.
Instead, a senior Air Force officer said, the air plan calls for an intensified version of the Desert Fox strategy to undermine Hussein in 1998: Barracks, command posts and other facilities of the security forces most responsible for protecting him will be heavily targeted.
That, it is hoped, will crack the protective shell and create opportunities for members of his regime to carry out a coup.
U.S. military and intelligence officials say Hussein is an amazingly elusive figure and that the United States rarely gets even glimpses of when he moves, where he hides and how he communicates.
"I don't think anybody's ever had a good idea of where he is at any given moment, or where he will be in the future," a military intelligence official said yesterday. "I don't think you'll ever have good information on that."
That admission, echoed by others, helps to explain why eliminating Hussein with an airstrike is seen by military planners as worth trying, but not something to build the air campaign around.
If Hussein eludes U.S. efforts to target him, it would follow a pattern in recent decades in which the United States has been able to overwhelm enemy forces but has struggled or failed to catch or kill leaders, from Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Pentagon officials are quick to point out that the stated objectives of the war are "regime change" in Iraq and elimination of its weapons of mass destruction. Asked whether bombings will target the Iraqi leader and key aides, a senior military official said that "is something we prefer to keep ambiguous."
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that victory would be defined by disarming Iraq, not eliminating Hussein.
But other officials, Pentagon advisers and commanders of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 said there is no question that the United States would seize any opportunity to end the war early with an airstrike on Hussein.
In fact, the United States attacked a vehicle in the first gulf war based on intelligence that it was one Hussein routinely used, only to learn later that his security forces managed a small fleet of such vehicles and the Iraqi leader escaped unharmed.
"We tried to smoke him. We didn't get him," said a former senior intelligence official.
U.S. officials also hoped to hit Hussein in 1998, when President Clinton ordered four days of airstrikes on facilities in Baghdad after United Nations weapons inspectors were withdrawn.
Current and former intelligence officials said the United States has never had a good bead on Hussein. One former official said he is one of "the most elusive people" the United States has ever faced. Hussein has surrounded himself with layers of security.
He is believed to employ several look-alikes as decoys. His movements are hidden even from senior advisers, and he rarely stays in one place more than a night or two. He has spent a fortune building dozens of palaces, and an elaborate network of tunnels under Baghdad, as well as bunkers that are believed to be impenetrable to all but the most potent U.S. bombs.
The closest the United States has come to penetrating his inner circle may have been in the late 1990s, when U.S. spy agencies took advantage of arms inspection programs to install sensors and listening devices.
Former inspector Scott Ritter has said the United States learned a good deal then about how Hussein's security apparatus worked and communicated. But those collection capabilities are said to have dried up considerably since 1998.
At the United Nations last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played audiotapes of intercepted Iraqi military communications. Some experts believe those intercepts would not have been possible without listening posts inside Iraq. But the voices on the tape were of midlevel military figures speaking over channels that Hussein and his senior aides would avoid.
If the odds of hitting Hussein are any better now, it is largely because of the volume of munitions that are expected to be used, and the precision with which they can hit their targets.
Col. Gary Crowder, a senior Air Force commander, said plans call for the unleashing of 10 times the number of bombs and missiles used in the opening days of the gulf war. "I do not think our adversary has any idea what's coming," he said.
The vast majority of the munitions to be used in the coming war are precision-guided, while just 10 percent were in 1991.
Much of that aerial onslaught will be aimed at communications, transportation, air defense and military targets.
Greg Miller and Richard T. Cooper write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.