About 100 United States special forces personnel and more than 50 CIA officers have been inside Iraq for at least four months, looking for missile-launchers, monitoring oil fields, marking minefields and helping their pilots target air-defence systems.
The operations, which are said to have included some Australian, Jordanian and British commandos, are seen as part of the opening phase of a war, intelligence officials and military analysts say.
This is despite the Bush Administration agreeing to the schedule of United Nations weapons inspections.
A spokeswoman for the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, rejected the suggestion that Australians - even individual soldiers attached to US or British commando units - had been involved in covert incursions. "Australians haven't been operating in Iraq," she said.
Australia is believed to have a policy of not sending special forces on covert operations into hostile countries, but the spokeswoman described this as hypothetical.
The action by US and British special forces in Iraq breaches international law because it is not sanctioned by the UN.
But it also reflects the new warfare, which targets terrorists and hidden weapons and relies heavily on commando operations and pre-emptive strikes.
On January 27 the UN inspectors will report on whether they have found evidence of a program to develop chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
Soon after, the US is expected to announce whether Iraq is in "material breach" of UN resolutions and whether that is a trigger for an invasion aimed at toppling President Saddam Hussein.
War preparations have been in full swing for months. The Pentagon says 60,000 troops are in the Gulf region, and that number could double in coming weeks.
Even as President George Bush repeated at the weekend that it was not too late to avert war if Saddam complies with the inspectors, bombing by US jets over the no-fly zone, coupled with the commando operations, means that a fight is already unfolding.
"We're bombing practically every day as we patrol the no-fly zones, taking out air defence batteries, and there are all kinds of CIA and special forces operations going on," said Timur Eads, a former US special operations officer. "I would call it the beginning of a war."
Naseer Aruri, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, said the Bush Administration was being duplicitous in conducting undercover operations while agreeing to the UN inspections.
"Certainly, the Arab world and the Islamic world would see it as being inconsistent with the weapons inspections, as well as an infringement on Iraq's sovereignty."
A US intelligence official said the Iraq missions were separate from the work of the inspectors, but that the two operations might be moving in parallel.
Some special forces members were following movements around suspected weapons sites, and this information could be handed to the UN teams.
The US has so far refused to do so, out of concern that the reports might be passed to Iraqi officials.
Copyright © 2003. The Sydney Morning Herald