The United States launched the opening salvo last night of a war to topple Saddam Hussein, firing cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs against selected targets in Baghdad.
“This will not be a campaign of half-measures and we will accept no outcome but victory,” President Bush said in an Oval Office address shortly after explosions ricocheted through the pre-dawn light of the Iraqi capital.
Anti-aircraft tracer fire arced across the Baghdad sky as the American munitions bore in on their targets. A ball of fire shot skyward after one explosion.
Saddam’s state-run television broadcast a message of defiance to Americans in return: “It’s an inferno that awaits them. Let them try their faltering luck and they shall meet what awaits them.”
The missiles struck less than two hours after the expiration of Bush’s deadline for Saddam to surrender power or face war.
Bush described the targets as being of “military importance,” and one White House official said the attack was the result of fresh intelligence that prompted an earlier-than-planned opening strike.
One military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, identified them as “leadership targets,” members of the regime’s ruling group, but said he was not certain whether Saddam himself was one of them.
Even so, it was clear from Bush’s words – he called it the opening stages of a “broad and concerted campaign” – that the war to topple the Iraqi dictator and eliminate his weapons of mass destruction had begun.
Earlier in the day, Bush told Congress the attack was part of a worldwide war against terrorism, and American forces launched a raid in Afghanistan at the same time it struck in Iraq. About 1,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division moved into villages in southeastern Afghanistan, looking for members of the al-Qaida network.
In Iraq, an American-led invasion force of 300,000 troops awaited the order to strike more broadly. U.S. and British forces massed in the Kuwaiti desert close to the Iraqi border, giant B-52 warplanes were loaded with bombs and Tomahawk missile-carrying ships were in position, all awaiting an attack order from Bush.
Bush had given Saddam 48 hours to leave the country or face war.
The ultimatum expired at 8 p.m. EST – 4 a.m. today in Baghdad, its population shrunken in recent days by an exodus of thousands of fearful residents.
Not long after, White House chief of staff Andrew Card informed the president that intelligence officials had no information that Saddam had left Iraq, and Saddam’s regime gave every appearance of digging in.
In the minutes after the deadline, Iraqi TV showed footage of a pro-Saddam march Tuesday in Baghdad, with members of the crowd chanting pro-Saddam slogans, some brandishing rifles and carrying pictures of Saddam.
“We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership,” a loyal Iraqi parliament assured the Iraqi dictator before the U.S. attack, and armed members of the ruling Baath party deployed behind hundreds of sandbagged defensive positions in Baghdad.
Even so, 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to American GIs during the day, eager to give up before the shooting started.
Bush met periodically throughout the day with his top aides at the White House and sent formal notice to Congress that reliance on “further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” would not suffice to counter “the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the nation “ought to be prepared for the loss” of American lives once the military effort begins to depose Saddam and recover weapons of mass destruction.
Along with the U.S.-led force approaching 300,000 troops massed in the Persian Gulf region were 1,000 combat aircraft and five aircraft carrier battle groups. The United States claims the public or private support of 45 other nations in a coalition to topple Saddam. But only Britain, with about 40,000 troops, was making a sizable contribution to the military force.
In a run-up to war, U.S. aircraft also dropped nearly 2 million leaflets over southern Iraq with a variety of messages, including, for the first time, instructions to Iraqi troops on how to capitulate to avoid being killed.
Hundreds of miles away, at an air base in England, crews loaded bombs aboard giant B-52 combat aircraft.
Apart from the desire to capture weapons of mass destruction, Bush’s submission to Congress said a military attack could lead to the discovery of information that would allow the apprehension of terrorists living in the United States. An attack, it said, “is a vital part of the international war on terrorism.”
Despite deep divisions at the United Nations, Bush also claimed “the authority – indeed, given the dangers involved, the duty – to use force against Iraq to protect the security of the American people and to compel compliance with United Nations resolutions.”