The War Room

He was the ultimate spy who came in from the cold. For months, the CIA and U.S. Special Forces had been working on the extraordinarily difficult and dangerous job of trying to penetrate Saddam Hussein's inner circle. According to a knowledgeable intelligence source, Delta Force, the supersecret commando group, had managed to tap Saddam's underground phone lines in Baghdad. But the real break came when the CIA managed to recruit an asset, a senior Iraqi official in a position to know Saddam's greatest vulnerability: where he sleeps each night.

Saddam, who had stayed alive and in power for more than three decades by never sleeping in one place for long, had to trust at least a few bodyguards. He made the rare mistake of relying on one henchman who was more afraid of the United States than he was of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi official "weighed the balance of fear," says a senior administration official, who described the highly secret operation to NEWSWEEK. The man measured the risk that Saddam would suspect his betrayal versus the mortal certainty that the American military was coming to wipe out the Iraqi strongman and his closest followers. The Iraqi turncoat began to sing to the Americans. He told his intelligence handlers that on the night of March 19, Saddam, probably accompanied by his demonic sons Uday and Qusay, was sleeping in a bunker beneath a nondescript house in a residential area of Baghdad.

At the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Va., Director George Tenet got the tip shortly before 3 p.m. (11 p.m. Baghdad time). He raced down the George Washington Parkway to the Pentagon, bursting in on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as he met with his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. The air war--the astonishing first wave of "shock and awe," hundreds of warheads raining down on Baghdad--was scheduled to begin the next night. But here was a chance to end the war before it even began. If Saddam and his henchmen could be killed in a "decapitating strike," hundreds and maybe thousands of lives could be saved.

Tenet, Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers were hustled across the Potomac River to the White House to confer with the president. As George W. Bush listened impassively, the top spook and the military men told the commander in chief that there was at least a decent chance that Saddam could be killed in one swift blow. Bush considered but rejected the argument that Saddam must be given until 8 p.m. to respond to the ultimatum that he leave Iraq or face the consequences. But there was still a catch.

Saddam, according to the CIA's intelligence, was hiding belowground in a special reinforced bunker, built by German engineers. Cruise missiles, with their thousand-pound warheads, were not powerful enough to penetrate the steel and concrete. Only warplanes carrying 2,000-pound MK-84s, so called bunker busters, could do the job. But Baghdad's air defenses were robust, a hornet's nest of surface-to-air missiles. The American arsenal included stealth fighters that, on most nights, could fly undetected past Iraqi radar. But over Baghdad, the moon was full. The planes would be silhouetted against the night sky.

Sending in American war planes without first taking out Saddam's antiaircraft batteries might be a suicide mission. But there was no time to organize and execute the sort of elaborate air campaign necessary to take out the SAM sites. At Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Gen. Tommy Franks told the president that he had until 7:15 p.m.--3:15 a.m. Baghdad time--to give the "go" order. Dawn would break at 6:07 in Baghdad (10:07 p.m. in Washington).

Franks ordered two F-117 stealth fighters, each carrying two 2,000-pound bunker busters, into the air from their bases in Qatar, some 700 miles from Baghdad. They were to head toward Iraq, but to await orders before entering Iraqi airspace. On eight American warships in the Gulf, the coordinates of Saddam's sleeping place were programmed into some 40 cruise missiles, targeted to slam into the rubble and, it was hoped, finish off any survivors.

At 7:12 p.m., President Bush said, "Let's go." The planes slipped through (undetected, as it turned out); their bombs struck home at about 9:30 p.m., 5:30 a.m. Baghdad time. The CIA's spy, who was somewhere outside the bunker, reported that Saddam was inside. There were reports of rescue workers furiously digging in the rubble and that Saddam had been wounded. But was Saddam still alive? The CIA's spy didn't know or couldn't say.

Generals and their political masters have been trying, and usually failing, to control the course of war for eons. They make grand plans that dissolve in fog and friction, but they keep on trying. Few men have tried harder than General Franks or his boss Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. For about a year, they wrestled over a war plan designed to remove Saddam from power at the lowest possible cost of life. This was to be a revolutionary plan. The American way of war has always been to overwhelm the enemy with superior firepower--more, bigger and better guns, ships, planes and tanks. (It was often said that World War II was won in the factories of Detroit.) But the Rumsfeld-Franks plan would rely on flexibility, surprise and superior intelligence; it would do more with less.

Mind games, not brute force, are the key. The CIA has collected the online addresses and private phone numbers of Saddam's top generals. An Iraqi general will pick up his phone at home and hear an anonymous voice say, "Give it up. This is a lost battle. You'll be saved if you defect." Or he will get the same message when he checks his e-mail. It is possible that the rumors of Saddam's death or injury in the first night's strike are part of an elaborate "psy-op" to sow doubt and defeatism. With remnants of the Iraqi Army staging ambushes, driving to Baghdad promises to be a hard slog, no matter how great America's superiority in men and materials. Better to turn Saddam's own forces against him.

"This will be a campaign unlike any other in history," said General Franks at his first press briefing on Saturday. It already was. Behind the remarkable scenes of mushrooming explosions in Baghdad, the breathless reports of the legions of "embedded" news correspondents armed with minicams, a secret war has been waged, sensed and hinted about, but never fully explained. According to intelligence sources, U.S. officials engaged in secret surrender negotiations with top officials in Saddam's regime. The military was able to adjust, holding off on the first night of "shock and awe"--called "A-Night" by CENTCOM planners. Pentagon officials spoke proudly about the military's ability to "scale up and scale down" the level of violence and to hold collateral damage and noncombatant casualties to a minimum. Notably, American bombers did not turn out the lights in Baghdad.

But the secret talks were frustrating, say administration officials. Using former Iraqi generals as go-betweens, U.S. officials were able to discuss surrender terms with various of Saddam's commanders, both in the field outside Baghdad and at the highest levels of the Special Republican Guard, Saddam's most elite (and supposedly loyal) Army units. President Bush was reported by informed sources to be closely following the talks. But there was no clear indication these turncoat generals could deliver Saddam himself, and there are some worries in the intelligence community that Saddam's men are actually leading the Americans on a merry chase. Last Thursday, after the surprise raid on Saddam's bunker, U.S. intelligence intercepts picked up confused and worried chatter among Iraqi Army commanders. It appeared that the Iraqi command structure was in disarray. But then on Friday, the chatter died down, replaced by silence.

CIA analysts struggled to determine Saddam's fate. Iraqi TV released a tape of Saddam, in glasses reading from a pad, reciting a defiant poem. Was that the real Saddam? Intelligence analysts brought in Saddam's former mistress to count the moles on his face. The CIA determined that the man in the film was indeed Saddam, but some analysts speculated that the tape had been made before the bombing, that the ruler of Iraq had been merely rehearsing the poem (hence the glasses and pad). Despite the best efforts of the intelligence community, the fog of war was settling back in.

The military's newfound nimbleness did pay off on several fronts. When Saddam began torching wells in the oil-rich Rumaila oilfields in southern Iraq, CENTCOM was able to move up the ground war by a day. The Army's Third Infantry Division and the Marines' First Division jumped off Thursday night. By capturing the Rumaila fields in short order, the American troops were able to avert an environmental and economic disaster for Iraq. Saddam's forces managed to set fire to only nine of some 1,000 wells in the region.

U.S. Special Forces, regarded by the regular military as unreliable "snake eaters" and relegated to a minor role in the first gulf war, are playing a critical and largely unseen part in the conflict. They seized two airfields, known as H-2 and H-3, in the western desert of Iraq. These fields can be used to support a helicopter assault, probably by the 101st Airborne, on Baghdad. And they give the U.S. military a platform for Scud hunting--for trying to make sure that Saddam doesn't launch any missiles at Israel. Saddam is believed by some intelligence sources to retain 20-odd Scuds, possibly tipped with bio-chem warheads. He might try to fire them off to kill Israelis or drag their country into the war, a provocation and public-relations disaster the United States is determined to avoid. Special Forces are also operating in northern Iraq, in part to try to head off a confrontation between the local Kurds and their bitter enemies the Turks. And the Pentagon is counting on specially trained Special Forces units to find and destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. (No caches found so far, said a Pentagon spokesman on Saturday night.)

To an unusual degree, Operation Iraqi Freedom is relying on psychological warfare, or "information operations," as Rear Adm. Garry Hall, CENTCOM's chief psy-war operator, calls it (the old term--psy-ops--is "too mind-bending," he says). The United States has already dropped more than 25 million leaflets on Iraq. When the first surrendering Iraqi soldiers were shown waving some of these leaflets, one of CENTCOM's psy-warriors cried out, "Hey, that's my product!" The military is planning on taking over Iraqi airwaves at some point to announce to Saddam's soldiers that they have lost and that resistance is futile.

For all the mind tricks and flash and dash of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the soldiers and Marines must still take ground. A day after the ground war began, the lead elements of the Third I.D. were already 75 miles into Iraq. But the Third I.D.'s vast supply convoy stretched back all the way to the Iraqi border. In the traffic jam, trucks and tanks got out of order. "I need my combat forces forward," yelled an exasperated operations officer for the Third Division, Seventh Cavalry, Maj. Frank McClary. "And this is the last time I'm going to say that." Vehicles broke down and got stuck in the sand. Soldiers had to scrounge for spare parts by back-channel bartering. "We call them drug deals," said Specialist Jared Agnetti, 22. "We bribe [the maintenance guys] with sodas and pogey bait [chips, snacks] and try to do them favors."

Resistance was reasonably light in the first three days of the invasion. There were few fire fights, and more soldiers had been killed by helicopter crashes than enemy fire. The invaders are hopscotching around cities like Basra and An Nasiriya rather than getting drawn into street fighting. The ground commanders are not likely to rush into close combat if Saddam's forces stand and fight. In their first brushes with Iraqi troops, the Americans preferred to stand off, using artillery barrages and calling in airstrikes. Unit commanders are worried about mistakes. In the gulf war, a quarter of the casualties were from friendly fire. On the first night of the invasion, when Capt. Todd (T.K.) Kelly of the Third I.D. thought his men were being unforthcoming about why they opened up on an approaching Iraqi vehicle, he barked, "I need to know what's going on. You guys didn't shoot each other, did you?" (They didn't.)

The first real test could come when the Third I.D. encounters one of Saddam's Republican Guard units, the Hammurabi Division, on the southwestern approach to Baghdad. Similarly, the Marines will encounter the Nebuchadnezzar Republican Guard Division on the southeastern approaches. Will Saddam's men surrender or shoot back? That may depend on the state of the head games being played with Saddam's commanders. While CENTCOM and Pentagon officials were reasonably pleased with the open thrusts of the war, Franks warned, "There may well be tough days ahead."

Some Pentagon planners worry that American forces are being inexorably sucked into a trap. Saddam is just waiting until the American forces are fully extended, their lines of supply stretched thin over the 400-mile road to Baghdad. He is holding off using WMD because he does not want to outrage international opinion or justify the American invasion. But if he can draw U.S. forces into Baghdad, he can start a street fight. Saddam believes that the Americans have a low tolerance for taking casualties. That may be so, but President Bush has clearly signaled his determination to remove the Iraqi strongman, no matter what.

Saddam--if he is still alive--could exercise what military analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution calls "the Samson option." Like the Biblical figure Samson, Saddam could decide to pull down the temple around him. His troops have begun burning trenches filled with oil on the outskirts of Baghdad, possibly on the mistaken notion that the smoke will interfere with American bombers (it can obscure laser targeting, but not the more common GPS guidance systems). The fear is that Saddam will gas his own people in a final spasm of Gotterdmmerung.

Or perhaps the CIA's spy will finish the job. The Iraqi turncoat is not alone. Intelligence sources say that the CIA has several high-level assets inside Saddam's top officer corps. They could save their country from war and Saddam. That would be a victory for the United States, but most of all for Iraq.