If his enemies reach his door, the experts suggest, Saddam could become entirely unpredictable — and all the more dangerous.
Those who have studied Saddam's psychology point to two aspects of his personality and experience: He is obsessed about his personal safety, and he has survived everything — failed wars, failed coups, sanctions — that his foes have thrown at him.
"He's been a survivor all of his life, and I would think he figures there's some way to survive when the prudent man would probably think otherwise," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
All this presumes Saddam is alive, not incapacitated and receiving accurate information on the war. None of those things are known, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Experts who have watched him for years say he would be convinced he could prevail, even as American and British forces blasted away at the foundations of his government.
U.S. officials describe Iraq's strategy in the war as an effort to create a quagmire for invading allies. The Iraqis hope that mounting casualties will turn American public opinion against the war, adding to pressure from the rest of the world to force a settlement that leaves Saddam in power.
On the battlefield, the strategy translates into delaying tactics, guerrilla attacks on allied rear areas and efforts to highlight, even create, civilian casualties to horrify the world, U.S. officials contend.
While Saddam desires that quagmire, American military officials acknowledge they want to avoid the deadly close-quarters fighting of an urban battle, hinting Thursday they may try to isolate the city rather than conquer it.
"He always expected that the battle would be fought and ... won in Baghdad," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former Iraq analyst at the CIA who is now with the Brookings Institution. "What's more, he always expected to win a political victory, that it would be either international pressure on the United States or the threat of terrible casualties in Baghdad that would cause the United States to basically pull its punch, to stop before we got the gates," Pollack said in a recent forum.
Officials also say the U.S. attempt on Saddam's life in the opening shots of the war is sure to affect his thinking. Saddam would suspect betrayal, believing that someone from his inner circle provided the CIA with information on where he was sleeping that night. He would go deep into hiding, limiting his communications with the outside world, making him harder to find but leaving him less in control.
Saddam's tactics could change if he becomes convinced he really could lose, officials say. Many officials don't expect him to flee or surrender. They fear he could trigger the chemical and biological weapons he is alleged to have, in a last, apocalyptic act of defiance.
"If he is intact but has gone to ground, and is still in control, we are fast approaching the time when backed into the corner he would order the use of chem-bio weapons against allied forces," said Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler who directs the political psychology program at George Washington University. "When he's backed into the corner is when he tends to lash out."
To Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, the possibilities are wide open. Saddam could run to neighboring Syria, unleash some killer weapons or go down fighting.
"I don't think the world is going real well for him right now," Rockefeller said.
By John J. Lumpkin