US launches attack on Iraq
PRESIDENT George Bush launched his war on Saddam Hussein today with a surprise attempt to take out the regime's leadership.As dawn rose on Baghdad, more than 40 cruise missiles began raining down, heralding the start of a conflict the President said would result in the end of the Iraqi dictatorship.
PRESIDENT George Bush launched his war on Saddam Hussein today with a surprise attempt to take out the regime's leadership.
As dawn rose on Baghdad, more than 40 cruise missiles began raining down, heralding the start of a conflict the President said would result in the end of the Iraqi dictatorship.
But within three hours of the strikes Iraqi TV screened pictures of a defiant Saddam claiming President Bush had "committed a new crime".
He urged the people of Iraq to resist the attacks, adding: "Your enemies will suffer humiliation and defeat.''
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A senior White House official had earlier said the missile attack was based on "very recent intelligence''. Sources said they saw an opportunity to launch a "decapitation exercise'' at the regime ahead of the main assault, which is not expected for some hours.
Intelligence networks have been feeding back information to the military command centre in Qatar in the hope that Saddam and his henchmen could be located and hit in the first wave of attacks.
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Although there was no way of verifying Saddam's pictures, they indicated that the dictator had evaded the missiles.
Saddam told his country "We are all for Jihad'' and called on Iraqis and their supporters to take up arms to "defend the dear country''.
First indications that the war had begun came when air raid sirens followed by a series of explosions were heard in Baghdad just after 2.30am this morning UK time.
The action began 90 minutes after President Bush's deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq passed.
In the first British comment on the start of the war, Downing Street revealed that the attacks had been brought forward.
A spokesman said: "The Prime Minister was informed shortly after midnight (London time) that attacks on a limited number of command and control targets was being brought forward.''
The spokesman added: "As regards the involvement of British forces, he (Mr Blair) will set out the position in due course.''
Sources indicated that the main campaign had yet to get under way.
British military commanders in the Gulf said there had been no order to begin attacks.
A British military source at US Central Command in the Qatar desert said: "Although hostilities have commenced this is not the start of the war.
"The Prime Minister was aware at midnight UK time.
"These air strikes were taking advantage of a window of opportunity based on intelligence reports.''
US officials said the initial attack, involving cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighter bombers armed with precision bombs, was a "decapitation exercise'' aimed directly at the Iraqi leadership.
While waiting for President Bush and Tony Blair to give the orders to attack, many of Saddam's soldiers appeared to be ready to give up without a fight.
Intelligence reports from inside Iraq spoke of mass desertions, with many thousands of troops planning to surrender when the war started.
The attack came at the end of an anxious day of waiting at the White House.
The President had studied final battle plans and told Congress why he was about to launch the largest pre-emptive attack in US history.
With the sun just rising, a handful of cars were speeding through the streets of Baghdad, but no pedestrians were visible on western TV cameras beaming pictures from the city.
Downing Street said that Mr Blair would stick to his planned schedule today, chairing an 8.30am meeting of Cabinet ministers most closely concerned with the Iraqi crisis – John Prescott, Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, Clare Short and David Blunkett – before presiding over a meeting of the full Cabinet at 10am.
Mr Blair was also expected to press ahead with plans to attend an EU summit in Brussels later today.