Published March 20, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States launched its opening attack against Iraq Thursday morning, aiming at "targets of military opportunity" in a pre-dawn "decapitation" strike after President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave the country passed unheeded.
Iraq responded hours later, sending what may have been Scud missiles toward allied troops stationed in Kuwait. Reports say that at least one was intercepted by American Patriot missiles.
The "decapitation" attack targeted Saddam personally, U.S. officials told Fox News, and the barrage of cruise missiles and bombs was a prelude to a major invasion of Iraq. Similar surgical strikes could go on for two to three days before the full-blown aerial and ground assault begins, sources said.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said one person died in the U.S. strikes and that several others were injured. He said the missiles hit a customs office and some empty Iraqi TV buildings, among other targets. There was no way to verify his report.
The first snafu of the military operation came hours before the missile strikes.
A helicopter carrying U.S. special forces crashed inside southern Iraq. There were no casualties, and the troops on board were all taken out safely. The military was taking steps to destroy the helicopter rather than let it fall into Iraqi hands.
A defense official also said a small plane headed from Iraq toward a Marine expeditionary force position in Kuwait crashed short of its mark. The Marines donned gas masks because of fears that the plane could have been carrying chemical weapons. No agents were detected.
Wednesday night's strike was a "target of opportunity" run not out of the Pentagon but directly between the White House and U.S. Central Command in Qatar.
Real-time intelligence on the whereabouts of the Iraqi leadership forced American leaders to abandon their original plans for the assault.
CIA Director George Tenet came to Bush and his War Council late Wednesday afternoon with information that Saddam and other top Iraqi officials would be meeting in a heavily fortified bunker, which also contained sleeping quarters, underneath a private home in Baghdad.
Sources told Fox News that U.S. intelligence had been tracking five high-ranking Iraqi officials for several weeks, including Saddam and his sons, Odai and Qusai.
Bush spent a few hours on the phone with allies such as Britain before authorizing the strike. Two other targets were also struck in the Baghdad area.
Sources said there was no word as of Thursday morning if the hit had been successful, but one U.S. official said, "There's always hope."
U.S. special operations forces have been inside Iraq picking out key targets.
U.S. officials said other limited strikes could be launched before a larger offensive gets underway.
Flight Lt. Peter Darling, spokesman for British military forces at Camp As Sayliyah, the Gulf command post for the Central Command, stressed that while hostilities had started, "this is not the start of the war."
"These air strikes were taking advantage of a window of opportunity based on intelligence reports," Darling added.
Fox News learned that two Iraqi missiles were intercepted in Kuwait after the strike on Baghdad -- one in the desert area of Mutlaa not far from the border.
The Iraqi missiles forced American soldiers in Kuwait to don gas masks and chemical protective suits, but there were no immediate reports of any injuries or damage, nor any evidence the missiles had chemical or biological warheads.
At the same time, about 1,000 U.S. troops launched a raid on villages in southeastern Afghanistan, hunting for members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
U.S. military officials said radio transmissions had been detected coming from caves above the Afghan villages.
It was the biggest U.S. operation in Afghanistan in over a year, and appeared designed to send a message to Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and sympathizers that war with Iraq would mean no respite for them.
The first missiles hit targets in Baghdad shortly before dawn Thursday, less than two hours after Bush's deadline of 8 p.m. EST Wednesday for Saddam to yield power.
"These strikes are being characterized as a 'decapitation,' targeted at command and control nodes," U.S. spokesman Marine Colonel Chris Hughes told Reuters of the strike. "If successful, it will radically change the way we do things."
Two F-117 Nighthawk fighter-bombers dropped four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs after the Iraqi leadership conclave was located in Baghdad. About 40 Tomahawk surface-to-surface missiles were also launched by six Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
Coalition defense officials told Fox News that the first Iraqi missile launched, which targeted Marines in northern Kuwait, was a Soviet-style ballistic Scud and was successfully destroyed by a Patriot anti-missile battery.
The same official said a later missile strike farther south near Kuwait City apparently involved two anti-ship cruise missiles, probably "Sunburns" or "Seersuckers" launched from the Faw peninsula near the Gulf port of Basra.
The anti-ship missiles did not hit anything. It was not clear whether they had been engaged by anti-missile systems. Cruise missiles fly at low altitude like airplanes and are difficult to track on radar or shoot down.
Other officials said the missiles fired at southern Kuwait were more likely Iraqi- designed Ababil 100 or Al Samoud 2 missiles, both of which are known to have been positioned in southern Iraq within range of U.S. forces.
In the United States, Bush announced to the nation that war had begun, stating that the barrage was the opening salvo in a "broad and concerted" operation to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."
"I assure you this will not be a campaign of half-measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory," the president said.
Coalition troops massed in northern Kuwait welcomed news of the first strikes.
"It's about time," said Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sydney, Neb., a member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "We've been here a month and a week. We're ready to go."
Scores of vehicles, including bulldozers, Humvees and trucks full of equipment and supplies, lined up in Camp New Jersey in Kuwait ready to move out.
Soldiers were up at dawn, cleaning tents and stuffing items into duffel bags. Some tried to slip out to the dining facility for one last hot meal before leaving.
Even before any shooting, 17 Iraqi soldiers defected. U.S. officers said they expected mass surrenders by Iraqi troops in the early stages of the war.
Pentagon officials have said in recent weeks that U.S. forces planned to drop 10 times the number of bombs they did at the start of the 1991 Gulf war.
Two hours after the cruise missiles hit, a subdued-looking Saddam appeared on Iraqi television in a military uniform and vowed an Iraqi victory.
"We promise you that Iraq, its leadership and its people will stand up to the evil invaders," he said. "They will face a bitter defeat, God willing."
U.S. officials told Fox News they are reviewing the speech to see if it may have been taped, not live. One official said it clearly was taped.
Shortly before dawn, air sirens blared in Baghdad, while yellow and white anti-aircraft tracers streaked through the sky. Several explosions could be heard.
Hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath party and security forces took up positions in the empty streets of Baghdad, where Saddam was widely expected to make his final stand.
Fox News' Rita Cosby and Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.