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Iraq war begins

US strikes at 'sites of opportunity'; Bush vows broad campaign

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Donnelly, And Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / March 20, 2003

WASHINGTON—The United States and its allies began the war against Iraq with targeted strikes just before daybreak today in Baghdad at sites that Delta Force commandos believed included a hideout for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, US officials said.

The attacks began less than two hours after the expiration of President Bush's deadline for Hussein to leave his country. Bush gave his go-ahead after meeting with his national security team at the White House last night and learning that US special forces had received intelligence about the sites, according to US defense and intelligence officials.

It was unclear early today whether any of the strikes hit their intended targets or whether Hussein was there. About two hours after the attacks, Iraqi television broadcast a speech by Hussein, in which he told residents to "go draw your sword" against the enemy. It was unclear whether or not the message was broadcast live, but Hussein mentioned today's date.

From the White House, Bush told a national television audience that the airstrikes were the "opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign" to topple Hussein, secure the country, and rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

"We will prevail," the president said.

At roughly the same time last night, about 1,000 US troops launched a raid on villages in southeastern Afghanistan, hunting for members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, military officials said. Helicopters ferried troops from the Army's 82d Airborne Division to the remote, mountainous area as the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network intensified.

In direct contrast to the opening of the 1991 Gulf War, which began at 2:30 a.m. with waves of bombers and fighter jets, Pentagon officials said the initial attack this time was much more focused. It included strikes from 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from between four and six ships and precision-guided bombs from F-117 Nighthawks, the Air Force's stealth fighter-bombers, and carrier-based jets.

But Bush said that the "shock and awe" military campaign promised in recent weeks by US military commanders was coming. "Now that the conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," he said. "And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory."

A military official said the strikes would change the nature of the war.

"These strikes are being characterized as a decapitation targeted at command and control nodes. If successful, it will radically change the way we do things," Marine Colonel Chris Hughes told Reuters.

At the Pentagon, a military official said of the "shock and awe" campaign, "You'll know it when you see it." Pentagon officials said they planned a massive psychological operation today that will include leaflets and television broadcasts.

In Baghdad, according to US defense and intelligence sources, US Delta Special Forces operating with the Iraqi opposition had found "sites of opportunity," where the leadership of Hussein's regime, and perhaps Hussein himself, was believed to be hiding.

"They have these Delta teams inserted trying to find [Hussein]," said one former US official with close ties to intelligence. "The ground rules always were that if they feel the intelligence is as good as it gets and it's actionable, they will begin the attack. That's what happened here."

The main battle force of more than 250,000 US and British troops, many concentrated in Kuwait, did not appear to be mobilizing immediately. Pentagon officials had said early yesterday that the central assault would include 3,000 to 4,000 laser- and satellite-guided munitions, 10 times more than the first night of the 1991 Gulf War.

The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the beginning of the war "should be seen as kind of a multi dimensional chess game."

"There will be some bombing in Baghdad," the former official added. "There will be a rollout of the troops in the south, and smaller operations going on all over the place."

The Delta teams, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., are viewed as the most elite special forces operators, a collection of top soldiers from all of the military's services.

Australian forces joined in the combat operations, Prime Minister John Howard said today. British officials declined to comment on whether their forces participated. Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally in the campaign to force Iraq to disarm, was informed of the military plan shortly before the strikes were launched, a government spokesman said.

Bush said that 35 countries were providing direct military, intelligence, or logistical support.

As the first explosions rocked the Iraqi capital, the main frequency of Iraqi state radio appeared to have been taken over by the US military, Reuters reported.

"This is the day we have been waiting for," an announcer said in Arabic shortly after the normal Iraqi broadcast went off the air suddenly, within minutes of the star of US airstrikes. The new announcer said that Hussein's administration was under attack.

In Bush's four-minute address, he said that the war would not be without risk, but that the risk of inaction was far greater to the security of the United States. One of the risks was underscored two hours prior to the attacks when the State Department issued a worldwide cautionary statement that warned of the potential of "anti-American violence" against US citizens and US interests. It warned Americans to be careful especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

Bush also counseled patience. "A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict," Bush said.

He repeated the charge that Hussein had placed Iraqi troops and equipment in civilian areas, "attempting to use innocent men, women, and children as shields for his own military; a final atrocity against his people.

"I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm," he said.

The president, looking somber, also reached out to people in Iraq and the Middle East, saying that American troops "come to Iraq with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization, and for the religious faiths they practice."

"We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people," Bush said.

The first word of the start of war came from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who issued a terse statement: "The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun."

He took no questions and hurriedly left the room.

In Kuwait, just 2 miles from the Iraqi border, members of the Third Infantry Division were awakened by a Globe reporter with news of the strikes. They expressed surprise and relief.

"I'm ready to roll," said Sergeant Arul Rodriguez, 25, of Coamo, Puerto Rico. "We have been here for a long time. . . . We can get this over now."

Specialist Robert Collins, 21, of Warner Robins, Ga., who was in his first combat mission, said, "I didn't think it would start this soon, but I'm just ready to go."

The Israeli government was advised by the White House 90 minutes before the attack. Many Israelis rose early to listen to Bush and to put the final touches on sealed rooms prepared in their homes at government urging to provide shelter from chemical and biological attack. The government issued orders for the public to unseal their gas masks and keep the masks with them at all times.

Earlier in Washington, Fleischer said that war was inevitable, "as a result of Saddam Hussein's failure to disarm and his possession of weapons of mass destruction."

Until his televised speech, Bush made no public appearances yesterday. In the West Wing, he met with military planners, presided at a meeting of the National Security Council, 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."

And for the first time yesterday, his spokesman directly addressed the likelihood of US casualties during a war. Fleischer said the nation "ought to be prepared for the loss" of American lives, once the military effort begins.

"[The war] could be a matter of some duration," he warned. "We do not know."

Outside the White House, more than 25 protesters were arrested, part of a larger group of demonstrators that chanted, banged drums, and carried signs that read, "Stop the War on Iraq."

Bahrain made a last-ditch offer of exile for Hussein and his family. Bahrain's information minister, Nabil al-Hamer, said his country had made the offer "in a dignified manner that should not be seen as undermining Iraq's position and capabilities."

In the face of swirling sandstorms, US and British troops moved into the demilitarized zone along the Iraq-Kuwait border, wearing warm chemical suits in case of an attack from Iraq.

Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appeared at a news conference in Baghdad after rumors had swirled that he had defected or had been shot. Aziz said, "We were born in Iraq, and we will die in Iraq, either as martyrs, which is a great honor, or naturally."

Baghdad, a city of 6 million people that was bustling just days ago, had strikingly few people on the streets yesterday, as schools and businesses closed and most people stayed close to their homes.

Jaber Abboud, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, was one of a handful still reluctantly tending shop. "We've started counting hours since George Bush gave the ultimatum," Abboud said. "I am hoping to sell most of my goods today, so tomorrow I won't have to open. I will take the rest of them home, and we will eat them during the war."

In northern Iraq, Kurds continued to flee the cities for more remote mountain villages.

Local journalist Latif Fatih Faraj, 33, estimated that only 10,000 out of a population of 75,000 people remained in Chamchamal, on the front line between Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and the rest of the country.

Aid workers in Jordan rushed to erect tents in two refugee camps on the border, each of which could shelter 20,000 Iraqis. Humanitarian agencies expect an initial influx of about 5,000 people, mostly foreign nationals living in Iraq, said Mohammad al-Hadid, head of Jordan's Red Crescent Society.

Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com.

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