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Iraq

Intel indicated early hit could take dictator out

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, BILL ADAIR and PAUL DE LA GARZA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2003


U.S. forces launched precision airstrikes against Saddam Hussein near Baghdad late Wednesday, beginning what President Bush said would be a "broad and concerted campaign" to "disarm Iraq and free its people."

The strikes used Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from F-117 Nighthawks, the Air Force's stealth fighter-bombers, military officials said. It was not immediately known if the attacks were successful.

Bush addressed the American people from the Oval Office minutes after antiaircraft fire was seen in the skies above Baghdad, a little more than two hours after his 8 p.m. EST deadline for Hussein to give up power.

The campaign to oust the Iraqi leader, although joined by more than 30 members of a "coalition of the willing," has provoked criticism from much of the world -- including some of the United States' traditional allies.

"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," Bush said. "And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory."

He warned, however, that "a campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict."

A senior government official said late Wednesday that U.S. intelligence suspected that Iraqi leaders were in the area of the initial attack. The U.S. official declined to identify the leaders who were targeted.

But C.W. Bill Young, Largo Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said late Wednesday he believed that the target was Hussein.

He said that U.S. intelligence had been tracking the Iraqi senior leadership, including Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, for days. Hours before the airstrikes began Wednesday night, he said, the leadership was tracked to a location outside Baghdad.

"An opportunity to have one or more of them at a location that would be vulnerable to attack presented itself," Young said, "and we took advantage of it."

Young, briefed by the Pentagon moments after the attack started, said a damage assessment would not be available until today.

Young noted that intelligence assets and Special Operations forces have been operating in Iraq for some time. The intelligence developed so quickly Wednesday that even the closest coalition partners were not aware, he said.

The president's address came at the end of an anxious day of waiting for the United States to launch the largest pre-emptive attack in its history.

Earlier, in Baghdad's predawn hours, the streets were deserted with almost no sign of military preparation as Bush's deadline for Hussein to leave the country or face attack passed. Some 300,000 U.S. and allied troops remained massed at the border.

In Washington, the president stayed out of the public eye as his 8 p.m EST Wednesday deadline came and went. As an anxious world watched the clock, he scrutinized final battle plans.

Bush met with Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and had just finished dinner Wednesday night when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, called. Card informed the president that intelligence officials had no information that Hussein had left Iraq.

Earlier, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer spoke of somber realities of war.

U.S. officials hope the war will be "precise and short," he said, but there will be casualties.

"'Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life," he said. "Americans ought to be prepared for the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein to protect the peace."

He reminded the nation, "We are up against an enemy that may use chemical or biological weapons."

Fleischer said Bush still hoped that Iraqi military leaders would surrender.

"The message is they should not engage in conflict, they should not behave in a hostile manner, they should not obey orders (from Saddam Hussein)."

For Bush, the attack on Iraq is a huge political gamble.

If the attack goes well, if Hussein is quickly deposed and the casualties are light on both sides, the president's popularity at home and his support abroad will likely soar.

If the war is drawn out and bloody, however, if no weapons of mass destruction are found, if the U.S. economy suffers, his popularity could plummet.

Earlier Wednesday, Bush formally notified Congress that Iraq had failed to comply with United Nations resolutions that required Hussein to disarm.

In an eight-page report required by the war resolution the House and Senate passed last fall, he said, "The lesson learned after 12 years of Iraqi defiance is that the appearance of progress is meaningless," and "There is no reason to believe that Iraq will disarm and cooperate with inspections to verify such disarmament."

At Lafayette Park across the street from the White House, about 50 people from Greenpeace and other groups protested the war. They shouted, "No blood for oil!" and a refrain of "What do we want? Peace!"

One protester climbed a tree but was quickly arrested by police. As they carried him away, he shouted, "No war! Stop war!"

More than two dozen people were arrested after climbing a chain link barrier onto Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.

About 50 yards away, about 100 people formed a circle and prayed for peace. A Japanese gong sounded during a moment of silent meditation. Many of the worshipers, members of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace group, held color photos of Iraqi women and children.

Protests also took place in New York, Boston, Detroit and other cities.

'No idea what is coming'

Hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath Party and security forces took up positions throughout Baghdad on Wednesday, behind sandbags and in foxholes. As the deadline approached, about half of them left the streets.

There was no sign during the day of regular army troops.

Al-Shabab -- the most watched station in Iraq and owned by Saddam's son Uday -- broadcast hours of patriotic songs and extensive archive footage of Saddam greeting crowds and firing off a rifle.

Almost every store was shut in Baghdad during the day and traffic was light as residents continued to stream out of the capital, heading for the relative safety of the countryside.

"I don't think the potential adversary has any idea what's coming," said Col. Gary Crowder, the chief of strategy at Air Combat Command, which is responsible for all Air Force warplanes.

At a Pentagon news conference, Crowder said the United States likely would drop 10 times as many precision-guided munitions -- bombs and missiles guided by lasers and satellite signals -- in the first stages of the conflict in Iraq as it did to open the 1991 war. He said 300 to 400 such weapons were dropped in 1991, suggesting that at least 3,000 would be used on the first day this time.

According to the "Master Attack Plan Design," Crowder said, the objective would be to isolate and incapacitate the enemy; gain air superiority; destroy nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities, and eliminate an offensive capacity.

The "target sets" include the leadership, telecommunications, nuclear, biological and chemical targets, electricity, and airfields. Overall, he said, U.S. war planners have identified about 50,000 potential military targets in Iraq.

The number of military targets attacked in the first 24 hours might surpass the number of targets during the same period during Desert Storm, Crowder said.

Crowder said that the American arsenal includes better weapons, which take advantage of stealth technology and precision-guided systems.

He cited bombs like the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, and a Sensor Fuzed Weapon to attack tanks, and improved Tomahawk missiles, and weapons that correct themselves in response to wind conditions. He said, "Military forces in the Persian Gulf are doing some of the most sophisticated planning ever done."

In addition, Crowder said that because of U.S. and British patrols of no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, "We are starting off in a significantly better position."

Over the past decade, coalition forces have repeatedly attacked Iraq's air defense systems in northern and southern Iraq. Once the war starts, Crowder said, U.S. fighter jets should "have control of the skies" to operate freely, easing the pace of attack.

Even so, Crowder repeated the Pentagon mantra about how the war would play out.

"The war might be a few days. It may be longer. It may be months," he said. "What will happen is a great unknown. We can speculate all we want."

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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