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US Focuses on 'Head of the Snake'

One week into Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. led coalition opened its long-awaited northern front, parachuting one thousand soldiers into Kurdish-held territory. But the focus of allied military attention remains Baghdad and what one senior defense official calls "cutting off the head of the snake."

The snake is Iraq's senior leadership, including Saddam Hussein, apparently unscathed in a surprise air attack a week ago that was aimed at ending the war even before it really began in earnest.

Pentagon officials remain focused on the leadership's fall and admit they are putting that goal ahead of mopping up resistance in areas coalition forces have already passed through in their drive to the Iraqi capital. They concede that resistance will have to be dealt with eventually.

But as Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff puts it, military planners firmly believe ousting Saddam's regime might cause all opposition to the allied invasion to collapse. "At some point, obviously, all of the elements have to be dealt with. As we continue to move forward, the first and primary objective, clearly, is to overturn the regime," he says. "And I believe that when the regime in fact is taken down, the motivation and the support for many of these elements will stop and, therefore, they will become less motivated and less effective. There aren't a huge number of them."

As part of its plan to "cut off the head of the snake," coalition aircraft have begun targeting the transmitters of Iraqi television, calling these elements of the leadership's command-and-control network. The transmitters are viewed as part of Saddam's capability to control not only his troops but also the Iraqi population, perhaps not with military orders but with the all-important perception that he is still alive and in command.

Military officials acknowledge another, perhaps even more critical, control element being used by the regime is the positioning of Special Republican Guard members and other Saddam loyalists with regular troops.

General McChrystal suggests these elements are in effect holding other troops as well as ordinary Iraqis hostage, compelling them to resist under the threat of death. "We believe it to be Ba'athists...Ba'ath Party members who are not strictly military. Also, some Special Republican Guard elements sent down to stiffen that, maybe some other elements that are in there, as well, to organize and make that process work," he says. "That's why we believe that when we can deal with the regime at large, part of the motivation and control of that will diminish."

In the meantime, one senior Pentagon official is suggesting regular Republican Guard units, originally thought to be loyal to the regime, may no longer be viewed by Baghdad as completely trustworthy.

This official, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes that it why Republican Guard units like the Medina Division south of Baghdad have not been pulled back into the relative protection of the capital, and instead left exposed to allied airstrikes.

The official feels Saddam wants such units close for defensive reasons, but not that close, fearing that if the Republican Guard turns on him, Saddam could be, in the official's words, "gone in a heartbeat." But U.S. officials are not counting on it, and say coalition forces are prepared to fight on.