Should the United States and its allies try to assassinate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein?

That question - always in the background since the Persian Gulf crisis began - has become more pertinent in recent days. The concern remains: Will the region be safe as long as Saddam Hussein lives?The Bush administration fears that even a militarily defeated Saddam would pose a continued threat to Western interests and Iraq's strategically vital neighbors. Still in power, Saddam could seek to cast himself as a hero in the Arab world, much as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser did after his country's drubbing by Israel in 1967. This could enable Saddam to wreak havoc through terrorism or sabotage and try to rebuild his still-substantial armed forces.

Indeed, some Western analysts believe that Saddam's death might mean an immediate end to the war - preventing the slaughter of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American soldiers as well as innumerable Iraqis in a bloody ground conflict.

"One of the things we want is to be sure he doesn't repeat this adventure," says former CIA Director William E. Colby. "The commander of the enemy force is a legitimate target. I would cheerfully have carried the bomb into (Adolf) Hitler's bunker."

At the same time, a direct attempt on Saddam's life is fraught with political risks, and it travels over uncertain moral ground.

Political murder has a long and inglorious history, dating back through biblical times. Even the term "assassin" originated in the Middle East.

In the 16th century, British statesman and scholar Sir Thomas More declared that treacherous assassinations of those "responsible for the wars" were justified if destruction of the innocent would thus be prevented.

Today, however, neither the wisdom nor the legality of attempting to kill the Iraqi leader is universally accepted. Current U.S. policy strictly prohibits American agencies from engineering the killing of foreign leaders without specific authorization from the president - the legacy of a string of aborted U.S. assassination attempts from the plot against Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of the Congo in 1961 to various schemes to remove Cuba's Fidel Castro.

And administration officials privately concede that their difficulty in tracking down Manuel A. Noriega in Panama during the 1989 invasion of that country has sobered them to the challenge of finding a hostile foreign leader, even with highly trained special operations commandos. "I don't detect much interest anywhere in the government in going in and trying to root (Saddam) out of Baghdad," one knowledgeable strategist says. "We couldn't find Noriega with 30,000 troops in the same city."

But what if Saddam happened to be killed by an allied bomb during wartime? Although Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney have insisted they are not "targeting" any individual, the bombing of sites that could shelter Saddam suggests that causing his death has been an undeclared war aim since the first attacks on Baghdad on Jan. 17.

And the president has publicly invited Iraqis to oust the leader who has brought so much destruction on them. "There is another way for the bloodshed to stop," Bush said earlier this month. "And that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." Previously, Bush had said bluntly: "No one will weep for (Saddam) when he is gone."

If the Bush administration were to target the Iraqi leader for extinction, analysts warn that such a declaration would go beyond the United Nations' mandate of expelling Iraq from Kuwait and could well splinter the U.S.-led coalition. It also could further elevate Saddam in the eyes of some radical Arabs and potentially intensify Muslim anger at Western intervention in the Middle East.

Meticulous in his attention to personal security, Saddam is believed to be shielded by a network of reinforced underground bunkers that may be impervious to U.S. bombs. His location within Iraq - a well-guarded secret even in peacetime - is known by only a few.

Military officials say he and his heavily armed security forces are constantly on the move. He often stays in residential neighborhoods, which U.S. commanders have ruled out as targets to avoid civilian casualties.

Moreover, U.S. officials say that Saddam's tight political control - and his penchant for executing all opponents - have made Iraq an exceptionally tough place to develop so-called human intelligence, or spies on the ground. Establishing or employing such channels during wartime is even more difficult.

"I think that was recognized as a foolish mission to begin with," says Air Force Col. Ralph Cossa, a Middle East specialist at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington. "He's extremely well-protected. He's got all sorts of hiding places. He's more than likely to surround himself with women and children. It sets us up for an unnecessary defeat."

Legality aside, some experts contend that going after Saddam personally could result in adverse political consequences that could damage America's national interests.

Abraham D. Sofaer, former legal adviser to the State Department under Presidents Reagan and Bush, warns that targeting Saddam would "invite revenge against the leaders who order it as well as their citizens and property."

Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, agrees. "When we personalize the conflict, we undercut our goals of characterizing the conflict as one between Iraqi aggression and the world community," Hamilton says.

At the start of the conflict, U.S. commanders made it clear that their plans for "decapitating" the enemy might well include killing its supreme commander. And they apparently had this in mind on the night of Jan. 17, when allied bombers first struck command-and-control centers and Saddam's palace in Baghdad.

Indeed, one night during the first week of the war, allied intelligence officials believed they had pinpointed Saddam's whereabouts, but the bombers that were dispatched to the site were unable to attack because a storm front blew across central Iraq.