The U.S. Navy launched about 320 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Iraq from ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea during a heavy barrage Friday, senior officers said.

"We have just begun the next phase of attacks in Iraq," said Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffit, commander of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk battle group in the north Persian Gulf.

"The intention is to convince the regime that it is time to leave, and if they don't we will try to take them out by force," Moffit told reporters about 40 minutes after the first missiles were fired.

"Approximately 320 missiles have been fired at targets in and around Baghdad," Moffit said at about 8:40 p.m. local time.

About 20 minutes later, missiles began hitting Baghdad, raising a number of fireballs and setting fire to Saddam Hussein's Old Palace in the most powerful strike since the war began two days ago.

The Kitty Hawk was one of two carriers in the north Persian Gulf to take part in Friday night's assault, which Moffit said was more powerful than anything during the 1991 Gulf War.

The radar-dodging Tomahawks were fired from the guided missile cruisers USS Cowpens, USS Bunker Hill, USS Shiloh, USS Mobile Bay, the destroyers USS John S. McCain, USS Higgins, USS Oscar Austin and USS Milius; and two submarines USS Columbia and USS Montpellier.

Capt. Patrick Driscoll, commander of air strike force aboard the Kitty Hawk, said two radar-jamming EA-6B Prowlers supported bombers aiming for targets over Baghdad.

F/A-18 Hornet and F-14 Tomcat fighters loaded with 500-pound, 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound bombs fitted with laser and global position system guidance systems roared off the Kitty Hawk's flight deck.

Driscoll said the fighters were providing close air support for Marines north and south of the city of Basra and the al-Faw Peninsula and the Army's V Corps in the vicinity of Az Zubayr.

"We're engaged in battles all over Iraq this evening," Driscoll said.

Driscoll said Friday night's assault was far beyond anything launched in 1991.

"Desert Storm One was a large armada of aircraft, with (Tomahawks) as well, but this is on a magnitude of three times that," he said.