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Covert teams hunting for Iraqi brass

U.S. covert teams have been operating in urban areas in Iraq trying to kill members of President Saddam Hussein's inner circle, including Baath Party officials and Special Republican Guard commanders, according to U.S. and other knowledgeable officials.

The covert teams, from the CIA's paramilitary division and the military's special operations group, include snipers and demolition experts schooled in setting house and car bombs. They have reportedly killed more than a handful of individuals, according to one knowledgeable source. They have been in operation for at least one week.

The previously undisclosed operation suggests U.S. efforts to destroy the Iraqi government's leadership are far more extensive than previously known, and have continued since the March 20 airstrike on a residential compound in the suburbs of Baghdad.

That attack was launched after CIA Director George J. Tenet presented President Bush with fresh intelligence that Hussein and his two sons, Qusay and Uday, were sleeping in the complex.

CIA officials declined to comment. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said, "As we have said before, we have Special Forces in the north, west and south of the country."

As conventional U.S. and British forces have encountered fiercer than expected Iraqi resistance, the CIA and the Pentagon's covert units are under increasing pressure to fire the "silver bullet" that will kill Hussein and bring down his government, thereby bringing the ground war to a quick conclusion. The agencies have stepped up a fierce psychological operations campaign to rattle key members of Hussein's government in an effort to get them to turn on the Iraqi leader.

The covert teams are just one feature of the largely invisible war being waged in Iraq by the CIA's and Pentagon's growing covert paramilitary and special operations divisions.

CIA units and special operations teams are also involved in organizing tribal groups to fight the Iraqi government from the north. They are secretly hunting for weapons of mass destruction and missiles sites, and are looking to interrogate Iraqi defectors and prisoners of war. The CIA, the National Security Agency and foreign intelligence services cooperating with the agency are helping to identify "leadership" targets; the homes, offices and other sites inhabited by the officials who make up the government's infrastructure.

Provided with a detailed account of the contents of this article, U.S. government officials made no request to The Post to withhold any of the story's details from publication, as they have sometimes done in other cases involving ongoing covert operations.

While many of the missions performed by the CIA in Iraq illustrate a deep integration of intelligence into battlefield operation — made possible largely through advances in high-speed, wireless data transmission — the covert killing teams are an example of what one source called the "real-life [expletive] stuff."

The teams carry sophisticated weapons and communications equipment capable of receiving near real-time targeting intelligence to guide them to locations where sought-after individuals are located.

Not all the explosions in Baghdad captured by western television cameras are the result of aerial bombs and missiles, the source said, implying that some have been planted by the teams.

For decades, since the assassination scandals and consequent legal restraints of the 1970s, neither the CIA nor the military undertook such selective targeting of individuals.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the CIA in particular has been given the go-ahead to undertake much more risky and sensitive operations that do just that. The agency maintains a list of about 30 terrorists, the so-called "high value targets," and has assigned paramilitary teams, sometimes working in tandem with covert military units such as the Delta Force, to track down, capture or kill these individuals, most of whom are members of the al Qaeda organization.

In November, Hellfire missiles launched from an unmanned CIA Predator drone killed six suspected al Qaeda operatives as they drove through the desert in Yemen. One of them, Ahmed Hijazi, was a naturalized American citizen. The main target of the strike was Abu Ali al-Harithi, who was suspected of masterminding the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole.

Yemen is considered a friendly country, not at war with the United States.

While much of the legal authority to carry out targeted assassinations remains shrouded in secrecy, the CIA and military derive their legal authority to carry out such operations from two classified legal memoranda, one written for President Bill Clinton in 1998 and one written by Bush administration lawyers after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Executive orders signed by three presidents, beginning with the first order in Feb. 18, 1976, were interpreted until recently as forbidding clandestine acts of targeted killing.

But since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has concluded that these executive orders do not prevent the president from lawfully singling out a terrorist for death by covert action.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking Oct. 15, 2001, appeared to broaden the definition. "It is certainly within the president's power to direct that, in our self-defense, we take this battle to the terrorists and that means to the leadership and command-and-control capabilities of terrorist networks," he said

Legal scholars also argue that enemy combatants, civilians or military personnel who engaged in military activity, are always legitimate targets during war.