Federal officials and agents of the Central Intelligence Agency have put out the word to the enemies of Saddam Hussein that the United States would like to see him dead, or at least toppled from power.
The CIA agents and others involved in the secret campaign have made it clear that no one at the White House would shed a tear if someone took the initiative and assassinated Saddam.
The military and the CIA can't do it without violating a long-standing presidential order against assassinations. But clandestine military and intelligence outfits across Europe and the Middle East now know, according to our intelligence sources, that the greatest favor they could do for the United States would be to take care of this.
At the moment, the most likely assassins would come from within the Iraqi army, where some are already tired of Saddam. A number of those dissident officers are in touch with CIA agents through intermediaries.
There have been at least three army-instigated coup attempts against Saddam this year, CIA sources say. And at least a dozen top Iraqi army officers have been executed since January for suspected disloyalty.
The Israeli spy agency, Mossad, is known to be pulling out all the stops to get information on Saddam's movements, keeping in mind that the political payoff would be great from an appreciative President Bush.
White House and State Department sources told us that in private, heated discussions over this crisis, Bush and top advisers have mused aloud about how convenient it would be if Saddam were bumped off.
The best news for the White House has been Saddam's offer to give in to Iranian demands for a peace treaty in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. This has greatly angered some top Iraqi army officers who have told their confidants, but not their leader, of their disenchantment with him.
There are ways for Bush to skirt the presidential order against assassinations, but he would rather have someone else do it for him.
We reported during the Reagan years on how President Reagan defied the spirit of the anti-assassinations policy by having the CIA train a force that tried more than once to kill Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The 1986 U.S. bombing raid on Libya looked like military retaliation for Libyan acts of terrorism, but it was really an attempt to assassinate Gadhafi.
Bush hasn't played as fast and loose with the policy and has lived to regret it. He was unwilling to encourage surrogates to murder Panama's Manuel Antonio Noriega during a coup attempt last October. In fact, Bush was ridiculed by Hill leaders because CIA agents secretly told the coup plotters not to assassinate Noriega, because the CIA operating rules required them to discourage it.
The lesson for Bush from Panama was that he needed to take more decisive action to avoid the loss of American lives. That's why the word has gone out through intelligence channels that, while the United States can't pay anyone or order anyone to kill Saddam, the favor would be greatly appreciated.