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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.
"They were aimed at our troops," the official said. "Obviously, as the potential for hostilities gets closer and closer, you have to get to a point where you can jump off."
During the afternoon and evening Wednesday, armed security guards fanned out throughout Baghdad and took up defensive positions along its southern edge. Some residents headed for bomb shelters or into the countryside in a desperate attempt to escape. Others assumed defensive posts along sandbag-lined intersections and atop government buildings.
Then a pall seemed to settle on the city, accentuated by hazy skies turned yellow by the desert sandstorm. A city of 6 million people became a place of empty streets and worried silence.
Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz appeared before journalists to belie rumors that he had defected or been killed. He predicted a long, bloody battle if the United States invaded. "I am carrying my pistol," he said, "to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors."
Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf warned that American soldiers faced "certain death."
In Israel, the government ordered all citizens to have their government-issued gas masks with them at all times. Many Israelis fear Hussein will launch missiles at their country filled with biological or chemical poisons.
He fired Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but they were armed with conventional warheads.
In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Germany would allow American military planes to use its airspace on their way to the Persian Gulf, despite widespread opposition among the German people to war with Iraq. But Schroeder reaffirmed that no German soldiers would take part in any fighting.
Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, King Fahd vowed that his kingdom, intent on giving diplomacy every opportunity to disarm Iraq, would not participate in war. In an address to his people, Fahd said none of his armed forces would "by any means trespass by one inch into Iraqi territory."
He said Iraq should not be subjected to "military occupation."
Bush had finalized war plans Wednesday afternoon amid an air of expectancy. During those preparations, Fleischer, the White House press secretary, made a point of reminding Americans that war against Iraq would be costly.
"Americans ought to be prepared for a loss of life," he said. But he said the president was at peace with using military force.
"We have not received, unfortunately, any indication from Saddam Hussein that he intends to leave the country," Fleischer said.
"The president would like very much to see the Iraqi people save their lives, the Iraqi military save their lives, by laying down their arms and by not following their orders."
As hundreds of front-line troops, likely to be the first into Baghdad, moved into their final forward positions on the northwestern Kuwaiti desert, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division formed long convoys, obscured by one of Kuwait's infamous sandstorms, and edged closer to the Iraqi border.
When the dust settled and dusk fell, a vast array of men and equipment was poised within five miles of the border. "There is a series of berms leading up to the border," said Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the division commander. "We are moving closer to that."
Abrams battle tanks powered by jet-fueled turbine engines, Bradley fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers were joined by fuel tankers, dump trucks, backhoes and front-end loaders.
Blount counted 10,000 vehicles in all.
"We've got trucks here that are brand-new," he said, "and trucks that are older than the drivers in them."
Six tanks in the 4th Battalion of the 64th Regiment broke down in a four-hour trek that covered barely 20 miles.
Mechanics pulled out their engines and transmissions and repaired or replaced them on the desert floor.
Three of 14 tanks in C Company broke down.
"Probably the problem is age," said Lt. David Chen, company executive officer.
"The Abrams was new for the Gulf War, but that's 12 years ago. Most people don't even keep their cars that long.
"And it's not just the model. Some of the actual tanks are 12 years old."
In response to the allied troop movements, Iraqi forces scrambled to hide or relocate targeted weapons, said Adm. Kelly, the battle-group commander, at his headquarters aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.
"Up in Iraq," Kelly said, "they are continuing to move surface-to-air missile systems and some surface-to-surface missiles in an attempt to make our targeting more challenging and to increase their survivability."
Most of the Iraqi troop movements have been concentrated around Baghdad, Kelly said, and some fortifications around the Iraqi capital, built in recent months, are now occupied.
Kelly said Hussein's troop movements expose his weaponry to detection.
"He has nothing else he can do," Kelly said. "There's a chance he will get lucky and protect something ... and it's something for his people to do other than sit and wait."
Kelly described a furious spree of protective movements by Iraqi troops, clearly aware they were outnumbered.
"In some areas, it's desperation," he said.
In Washington, cots, bottled water and military rations were delivered to the White House Communications Agency, responsible for every aspect of Bush's ability to communicate with the world, including secure telephones.
Security perimeters were expanded around the White House.
Other key agencies went on war footing. Round-the-clock staffing went into effect at the Pentagon, the State Department and for analysts and counter-terrorism specialists at the CIA.
At the busy Pentagon Metro station, subway riders were greeted by the sight of machine-gun-toting guards.
At the Capitol, leaders of both parties tried to present a united front in support of U.S. troops. But some Democrats criticized Bush's decision to abandon diplomacy and go to war.
"Today I weep for my country," Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) said on the Senate floor. "No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. ... Our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions questioned.''
Byrd's speech was greeted with applause from the Senate gallery, a breach of etiquette that was gaveled down by the presiding officer.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a strong supporter of Bush's move to war, rose immediately to challenge Byrd with deep and anguished emotion.
"To allege that somehow the United States of America has demeaned itself or tarnished its reputation by being involved in the liberation of Iraq is neither factual nor fair," McCain said.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), attacked by Republicans earlier this week for remarks faulting Bush for failing "so miserably at diplomacy," focused his words entirely on U.S. military personnel.
"We are awed by their sacrifice and their bravery, and we want them and their families to know that they have the profound respect and gratitude of every American," Daschle said. "We will make sure that they have every necessary resource so that nothing stands between our troops and victory."
Halfway around the world in Iraq, Abid Ahmad Mohammed, who has lived in Baghdad for 12 years, volunteered to help defend Hussein's government as if it were his own.
He and several other volunteers stood behind sandbags on the roof of a downtown building.
Groups of young men with Kalashnikov rifles walked around the city screaming: "Saddam, we will sacrifice our blood and souls for you."
Daniszewski reported from Baghdad and Chen from Washington. Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan with the 3rd Infantry Division; Carol J. Williams aboard the Abraham Lincoln; Sam Howe Verhovek in Kuwait City; Maura Reynolds, Janet Hook, John Hendren, Esther Schrader, Nick Anderson, Vicki Kemper, Greg Miller, Johanna Neuman, Esther Schrader, Robin Wright and Ricardo Alonzo-Saldiver in Washington; Tracy Wilkinson in Doha, Qatar and Henry Chu in Berlin.