BAGHDAD—The United States launched a thundering bomb and missile attack on Baghdad at dawn today, targeting senior government leaders in what could become all-out war to drive Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq.
Air raid sirens blared, and yellow-and-white tracers from Iraqi antiaircraft fire streaked across the city. Several large explosions rocked the capital, and a ball of fire flared in the southern sky. As the sun rose higher, street lights flickered out and the city fell into a ghostly silence.
"The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared shortly after 9:30 p.m. Wednesday in Washington, or 5:30 a.m. in Baghdad. Forty-five minutes later, President Bush told the American people that he had ordered coalition forces to strike "selected targets of military importance" in Iraq.
A government source in Washington said the air attack was aimed at a "target of opportunity," which was described as "senior elements of Iraqi leadership." The target was on the outskirts of Baghdad, the source added, in a "residential facility." The source declined to say whether the target might have been Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusai, who hold key positions in the Iraqi government.
Three hours after the attack, Hussein, wearing a military uniform, black beret and glasses, appeared on state television and hurled defiance at Bush. His broadcast began with the country's national anthem and a picture of Hussein with the Iraqi flag. Seconds into his speech, the broadcast went off the air but came back.
"The criminal little Bush," Hussein said, "has committed a crime against humanity."
Hussein began his comments by reading a Koranic verse. Then he switched back and forth between two sets of papers. His remarks, which appeared to be handwritten, were laced with religious terms and military hyperbole.
Bush had given Hussein 48 hours to relinquish power and flee. The explosions began about 90 minutes after the deadline expired. A military official at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, suggested the airstrike was limited -- and not a part of what would become a wider assault.
"These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign," Bush said in his televised address to the nation from the Oval Office. "We have no ambitions in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people. Our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done."
Bush decided to launch the preliminary attack during a marathon meeting Wednesday afternoon with Vice President Dick Cheney and his top military and intelligence advisors. After dinner with his wife, he received a call from White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., informing him that there was no indication Hussein was complying with Bush's ultimatum to step down.
The attack, by about three dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs dropped from F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters, was likely to be followed by other limited attacks over 24 hours, even before a main air assault begins, a senior defense official said.
By its own account, the United States planned to overwhelm the Iraqis with shocking firepower, using cruise missiles, precision-guided bombs and electronic jamming devices.
The outgunned Hussein hoped to draw U.S. and allied British troops into deadly and difficult urban warfare as he makes a last stand in Baghdad or possibly his home region of Tikrit, to the north.
Even before war began, much of the Middle East -- and the world -- was tight with tension and dread. Aid workers in neighboring Jordan and Kuwait braced for thousands of war refugees.
Seventeen Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. forces along the Kuwaiti border Wednesday, reported the U.S. Central Command, headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Fifteen of the Iraqis entered Kuwait from the west, and two others crossed along Highway 80, which runs north-south from Iraq into Kuwait, military spokesmen said.
U.S. officials were eager to spread the news of the surrender, citing it as evidence that a persistent propaganda program was working. Tons of leaflets -- 2 million on Wednesday alone -- have been dropped over parts of Iraq by American aircraft to persuade Iraqi forces to give up, return to their barracks or at least hold fire.
U.S. Marine and Army mechanized and infantry battalions rolled through a fierce sandstorm Wednesday afternoon and moved into positions along Kuwait's northern border with Iraq, while Hussein's forces were reported to be concealing weaponry and aircraft and mounting defenses around Baghdad.
At the same time, the United States sent warplanes to attack Iraqi missile systems and artillery near the southern port city of Basra, about 40 miles from the Kuwaiti border. Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, commander of a three-carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, said the strike responded to Iraqi attempts to shoot down U.S. and British aircraft.
A senior military official said the artillery posed a danger to the thousands of American and British soldiers as they moved ever closer to the Iraqi border.