President Bush's stark invitation yesterday for Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands" against President Saddam Hussein reflected a belief that Iraq's military forces and governing elite are increasingly desperate to stop the allied destruction of their country, according to senior officials and government analysts.
Officials said they knew of no hard intelligence suggesting that Saddam has become vulnerable to insurrection or that a coup may be imminent against him. A top administration official said "real inside information" of that nature would be tightly held within the government.
But one official, reflecting the consensus among others interviewed yesterday, said there were numerous small signs of mutiny and discontent in Baghdad and in the Iraqi armed forces. He said he interpreted the conditional offer of withdrawal from Kuwait by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council as "a sign of desperation."
Another official, citing "some anecdotal and some hard evidence," said Bush had been told "there is at least a little bit of a better chance today than there was two weeks ago" of a general uprising against Saddam.
But another official cautioned that evidence of dissent within the upper echelons of Iraq's military forces was based on "little shreds of information" that may not be substantiated. A U.S. government analyst said the indications of "unhappiness don't translate into some kind of political change at this moment. . . . Saddam is not in imminent political danger."
While professing uncertainty about "the real core that holds this guy up," as one official put it yesterday, administration analysts describe Saddam as Iraq's sole dictator.
The Revolutionary Command Council -- an inner cabinet chaired by Saddam and including Deputy Chairman Izzat Ibrahim, Baath Party militia chief Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- is seen here as a vehicle for announcing decisions. The council overlaps only partly with Saddam's shifting inner circle of close relatives and fellow natives of Tikrit, officials said.
"Coup plotting is by its nature a very hard thing to penetrate," an official said, but "it's sound psychological warfare at the strategic level" to tell Iraqis that Saddam's removal could "avoid having Iraq turned into a giant Lebanon."
Phebe Marr, a Middle East expert at the Pentagon's National Defense University, said continued war confronts Iraqis with "a whole decade of development swept under the rug." Field commanders, according to another U.S. analyst, "have casualties, and they are seeing the depletion of their forces. It's making a very strong case."
It remains unclear, according to Arab diplomats and analysts who have lived in Baghdad, whether and how that case has been made to Saddam. One Arab diplomat with broad experience in Iraq said Saddam's advisers never tell him that they personally have concerns about his policies. "They would say, 'We can see around us, the officers and men are under tremendous pressure,' " the diplomat said. "He is a very clever man and he will see their eyes and he will think twice."
Meanwhile, the diplomats said, Bush's invitation to a coup may resonate with some of the advisers. "The distance between the desire and the capability can be shortened by more and more pressure," the diplomat said. "The stronger the incentive, the more possible the goal becomes."
A second diplomat said, however, that suggestions of uprising sounded "awkward" from an American president and were unlikely to penetrate Saddam's extraordinary security. "I wouldn't have said this if I were Bush," he said.
Because "organized opposition in Iraq is the most dangerous kind," a U.S. official said, analysts are searching for signs at the lowest tactical levels that Iraqi military discipline has begun to break down.
One Pentagon official with access to operational intelligence said the U.S. Central Command estimates that twice as many Iraqi soldiers have deserted their posts and headed home as the approximately 1,100 who have turned themselves over to allied commanders. Iraqi artillery units, according to another official, are not returning allied fire, "from which we infer the guys are afraid to go to their guns."
Paradoxically, although they see yesterday's diplomatic thrust as a response to Iraqi domestic pressures, several U.S. government analysts said the prospect of withdrawing from Kuwait will only widen the fissures among front-line troops.
"For the Iraqi soldier, it is the first concrete implication that his leadership is not going to fight this thing to the finish," said Marvin Feuerwerger, a former Pentagon policy planner. "I can't imagine it will increase their resolve to fight."
An officer who fought in Vietnam said the Pentagon had learned there that "it's very hard for an army to point in two directions at once."
"Once Nixon decided we were going to withdraw, who wanted to be the last guy to die in Vietnam?" the officer said.
Staff writers Ann Devroy and Al Kamen contributed to this report.