WASHINGTON -- CIA director Robert M. Gates has provided a new, detailed account of one of the most historically significant and controversial actions of the Bush administration: the decision to leave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week as he prepared to leave office, Mr. Gates, deputy national security adviser at the White House before and during the war against Iraq, acknowledged that administration officials talked extensively about the possibility of making the capture of Mr. Saddam one of America's war aims.
In the end, Mr. Gates said, U.S. officials rejected the idea, largely because they feared that the Iraqi leader would go into hiding, as Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega had done during the 1989 U.S. military intervention in Panama, and that U.S. troops occupying Iraq would be unable to find him.
In the nearly two years since the end of hostilities in Operation Desert Storm, President Bush, who once branded Mr. Saddam as "worse than Hitler," has had to live with some of the unhappy consequences -- politically and for American foreign policy -- of Mr. Saddam's continued hold on power.
During last year's presidential campaign, President-elect Bill Clinton and Ross Perot cited Mr. Saddam's continuing presence in Baghdad to diminish the luster of Mr. Bush's victory in the Gulf War. Even now, in the final days of his presidency, Mr. Bush finds himself grappling with some of the continuing challenges and gestures of defiance by the Iraqi leader, whose forces now are challenging U.S. warplanes in the U.N. "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq.
In the past, American military leaders such as Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Gulf War commander, have said it would have been difficult for U.S. troops to catch Mr. Saddam, had he fled Baghdad and gone into hiding. But those difficulties have not been cited as a critical element in the decision not to pursue the Iraqi leader.
Instead, the official explanations have focused largely on three factors:
* That American troops would take more casualties in an extended drive on Baghdad.
* The Bush administration's mistaken belief that Mr. Saddam would soon be overthrown in a postwar coup.
* That the U.N. coalition supporting action against Iraq had been put together strictly to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, not for installing a new Iraqi government.
A few months after the Gulf War ended, Mr. Bush appointed Mr. Gates to replace William H. Webster as CIA director, touching off long, bruising confirmation battle.