War begins in Iraq with strikes aimed at `leadership targets'
By Martin Merzer, Ron Hutcheson and Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Thursday, Mar 20, 2003
President George W. Bush speaks to the nation about the airstrikes in
WASHINGTON - War erupted Wednesday night as the United States launched
dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles and aimed 2,000-pound bombs at Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein and other "leadership targets" in Baghdad.
The strike was aimed at "decapitating" Saddam's regime and specifically
targeted him, his two sons and other senior leaders of the Baath Party
and Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, according to a senior Bush
Saddam's fate was not immediately known, though Iraqi television early
Thursday broadcast what it said was a live statement by him. Looking wan
and drawn, the man mentioned Thursday's date and vowed enduring defiance.
"We pledge in the name of the fighting people and its heroic army that we
will confront the invaders," he said.
U.S. forces also took control of the frequencies used by Iraqi state
radio and began broadcasting messages in Arabic, officials said. The
message said the Iraqi people's day of liberation had arrived.
But a fearsome array of U.S. and allied troops and weaponry poised for
action at the Iraq-Kuwait border did not appear to have been ordered into
combat as of Wednesday night.
President Bush announced the attack in a four-minute television speech to
the nation. "On my order, coalition forces have begun striking selected
targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to
wage war," he said. "These are the opening stages of what will be a broad
and concerted campaign."
Minutes before the speech, an internal television monitor showed the
president pumping his fist. "Feels good," he said.
Shortly after his announcement, the State Department warned that U.S.
citizens traveling or living abroad faced increased threats of terrorist
actions and anti-American violence. "As a result of military action in
Iraq, there is a potential for retaliatory actions to be taken against
U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world," the advisory said.
The missile attacks were an attempt to behead the Iraqi leadership
without risking the civilian deaths and destruction that a full-scale war
would produce, said the senior administration official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.
Another official, who also requested anonymity, said at least two Navy
ships in the Persian Gulf and a submarine in the Red Sea fired three
dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles. Following that, F-117 "stealth" attack
planes carrying 2,000-pound bombs joined in the attack. The Tomahawk
cruise missile carries an explosive half that size.
U.S. intelligence operatives had been in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq
for weeks, tracking the movements of senior Iraqi officials, according to
the administration official.
Air raid sirens sounded in the capital at dawn and anti-aircraft fire and
explosions were heard across Baghdad, but calm appeared to return to the
city shortly after the initial strike.
The attack - far less massive than the strike many thought would ignite
the war - came after a lengthy meeting between Bush and his national
security advisers that began at 3:40 p.m. EST Wednesday and broke up at
In the end, presented with credible intelligence information suggesting
that Saddam was vulnerable, President Bush made the decision to authorize
"They decided not to wait, to go after Saddam Hussein now," said Loren
Thompson, a defense analyst with well-placed sources in the Pentagon. He
said administration officials feared missing an opportunity to kill
And so, the second Gulf War-a preemptive war everyone saw coming and no
one could stop - erupted at around 5:30 a.m. local time, 9:30 p.m. EST.
That was about 90 minutes after the 8 p.m. Wednesday deadline set by the
president for Hussein's capitulation passed without any indication that
he had fled into exile.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of all allied air
power in the first Gulf War, said the strike illustrated that U.S.
military officials are determined not to be predictable.
But he said the larger, more powerful and sustained war was likely to
start very soon. "You've got to go on the ground to really convince the
Iraqis we mean business," he said.
Tens of thousands of American and British soldiers and Marines prepared
to do just that, rolling to within 100 yards of Iraq where they remained
throughout the day awaiting orders to cross the border.
"Welcome to the front line," Army Maj. Frank McClary told officers from
the 3rd Infantry Division as they stood at a breach in the fence that
separates Kuwait and Iraq.
No Iraqis were visible and a U.N. guard post about 500 yards across the
flat, featureless border appeared abandoned. Dozens of Bradley fighting
vehicles and Humvees idled nearby. Large American flags flapped in the
A few miles away, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division completed a
pre-combat ritual: They shaved their heads. "That means they are locked,
loaded and ready," said Army spokesman Max Blumenfeld. "This is their
U.S. officers said Army engineers cutting holes in the border fence were
startled when two Iraqi soldiers surrendered well before hostilities
began. The Pentagon reported that at least 17 Iraqis surrendered to
allied forces rather than face U.S. forces.
Throughout Kuwait U.S. troops stepped up preparations against early Iraqi
attacks on staging areas, sabotage of Iraqi oilfields and possible
terrorist attacks. At Camp Virginia, 45 miles from the border, concern
grew over a possible attack by Iraqi missiles. Many of the 7,000 soldiers
there became visibly tense.
"If we have a Scud attack tonight, we need to meet back here after," Col.
John Gardner of the 7th Combat Support Group told his staff. "I need to
know you're safe."
Beginning Thursday, Air Force personnel on bases in the region will be
required to wear flak jackets and helmets whenever they are not inside
secure buildings, according to Air Force Capt. John Sheets. They already
were carrying gas masks, bio-chemical suits, field gear and antidotes for
In addition, 75 American oil-fire experts began arriving in northern
Kuwait in case Saddam blows up the Rumailah oilfields in southern Iraq.
In 1991, his forces torched 700 Kuwaiti oil wells.
A towering sand storm blanketed the region Wednesday, but U.S. Marine
officers said it would subside by mid-day Thursday. In any event, it was
not likely to be a "showstopper" if Bush ordered a wider attack, one
Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of all allied forces in the Persian
Gulf region, returned Wednesday to his forward base in Qatar after a
meeting in Saudi Arabia. Throughout the day, military planes roared north
from Qatar's airfield, apparently bound on surveillance and training
Pre-invasion strikes on Iraqi artillery batteries in southern Iraq
intensified Wednesday as U.S. planes used precision-guided bombs to
attack 12 positions within range of allied forces.
About 10,000 armored and other vehicles were mustered to roll into Iraq
from Kuwait, according to Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, the 3rd Infantry
Division's commander. Two hundred of those vehicles could be lost to the
rough terrain, he said.
The Iraqi military has about 389,000 troops, but U.S. Army officials
believe that only the 15,000 elite Republican Guard troops may be loyal
enough to fight to the end.
U.S. officials believe thousands of others will defect during the first
hours of bombing.
"Some will defect immediately and go to their homes," said one Army
official, who requested anonymity. "Others will wait, knowing that if
they turn themselves in as POWs, they'll get a good meal."
Standing at the border, the 3rd Infantry Division's McClary said his 1st
Brigade Combat Team would secure attack lanes. His soldiers also were
equipped with bridging equipment, needed to cross two ditches dug on the
Iraqi side of the border.
"Once we cross here, we're rolling," said McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C.
"Once we cross the international border, it's a fight from there."
Apache Company of his 1st Brigade Combat Team was assigned to push up to
the border fence, establish a defensive screen and wait for the order.
"I don't know whether to be excited or nervous," Spec. David M. Beebe,
20, of Gadsden, Ala., said as he sat atop an M113 armored personnel
carrier. He used binoculars to scan the other side of the border.
"Now, we are waiting for word from higher," said 1st Sgt. Michael "Todd"
Hibbs, 36, of Boise, Idaho.
As darkness fell and sentries took to their posts, Hibbs sent a final
message of the night to his troops. He told them to get some rest.
"You're going to need it tomorrow," he said. "We've got some long days
(Knight Ridder correspondents Ruby L. Bailey, Jessica Guynn, S. Thorne
Harper, Mark Johnson, Meg Laughlin, Sara Olkon, Peter Smolowitz, Juan O.
Tamayo and Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.)