BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Anti-aircraft tracers flashed across the skies of Baghdad and explosions sounded in the city at dawn today as President Bush launched war against Saddam Hussein.

Less than two hours after Bush’s deadline for the Iraqi leader to leave the country, the U.S military attacked with Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from F-117 stealth fighter-bombers.

U.S. government officials said the strikes targeted Iraqi leaders in what the president called the opening salvo in an operation to “disarm Iraq and to free its people.”

Bush emphasized the war was not against the Iraqi people but their leadership. American messages broadcast on Iraqi airwaves to the population declared, “This is the day you have been waiting for,” according to Al-Jazeera TV.

At about 5:30 a.m., air sirens blared in the Iraqi capital and yellow and white anti-aircraft tracers streaked through the sky. A number of strong explosions could be heard. Most seemed to be at locations outside the city, but one was followed by a rising ball of fire toward the southern part of the capital.

Frequent sonic booms and the sounds of aircraft could be heard in northern Iraq above the city of Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish autonomous enclave.

In Baghdad, the initial firing stopped after about a half-hour, and the capital returned to the hush that reigned there as the deadline neared. The only sounds during the brief lull was a mosque’s muezzin making the call for dawn Islamic prayers.

Shortly after, the sound of anti-aircraft and more distant explosions shattered the silence, setting off car alarms.

After the attack, Iraqi state radio broadcast a message saying, “The criminals, the enemies of God, homeland and humanity, launched the aggression against our homeland and people. May God humiliate them.”

Hundreds of armed members of Saddam’s Baath party and security forces took up positions in Baghdad after the attack, though the streets of the capital were mostly empty of civilians.

There was no sign during the day of regular army troops or armor in or outside Baghdad, where Saddam was widely expected to make his final stand against any invaders.

The president on Monday gave Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq, a deadline that expired at 8 p.m. yesterday EST and 4 a.m. Baghdad time. The Iraqi leadership rejected the ultimatum Tuesday.

Tony Blair – Bush’s key ally against Saddam – was informed about an hour before the deadline expired that attacks on Iraq were being brought forward, his office said, declining to specify who contacted the British prime minister.

Yesterday, almost every store was shut in Baghdad and traffic was light as residents continued to stream out of the capital, heading for the relative safety of the countryside.

“We cry for Baghdad,” said civil servant and part-time Baghdad historian Abdel-Jabar al-Tamimi. “Tonight, we shall be awake waiting for the bombs to fall, but we will also remember that God is stronger than oppression. Wars come and go, but Baghdad will remain.”

Al-Shabab – the most watched station in Iraq and owned by Saddam’s son Odai – broadcast hours of patriotic songs yesterday and extensive archive footage of Saddam greeting crowds and firing off a rifle.

At night, the station showed an American movie, “The Guilty,” starring Bill Pullman as a lawyer who rapes an employee and hires his estranged son to kill her.

In the minutes after the 4 a.m. deadline expired, Iraqi TV replayed footage of a pro-Saddam march earlier in the week, with people brandishing rifles, chanting slogans and carrying pictures of the Iraqi leader.

Iraqi officials have remained defiant in the face of about 300,000 U.S. and British troops backed by 1,000 warplanes and a fleet of warships – all ready for an attack on Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction that Washington and London say Saddam is concealing.

Members of Iraq’s parliament declared their loyalty to Saddam yesterday and renewed their confidence in his leadership

“We are dedicated to martyrdom in defense of Iraq under your leadership,” they said in a message to Saddam issued at the end of their session.

Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state allied with the United States, offered Saddam a haven yesterday, the first such offer to be publicly extended to the Iraqi leader as Arabs scramble to avert war. There was no immediate Iraqi comment on the offer.

U.N. weapons inspectors flew out of Iraq on Tuesday, ordered to leave by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the United States indicated war was near.

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