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March 20, 2003
 
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(Reuters Photo)
Britain Joins Widening Iraq Offensive

Reuters


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By Lyndsay Griffiths

LONDON (Reuters) - Military forces from Washington's top ally Britain have joined a ground attack on Iraq as the main offensive geared up on Thursday, a British military source said.

"The whole thing is kicking off tonight," the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "The air war is starting and we have ground forces starting at the same time. British forces are engaged."

As his troops went into action, British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into a diplomatic showdown with France, which is opposed to the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

Blair pre-recorded a message to the nation to be broadcast "at the appropriate time," then slipped quietly out of the country for what promised to be a charged dinner with French President Jacques Chirac and other European leaders.

The first missiles struck Baghdad before dawn on Thursday and President Bush said the U.S.-led coalition planned to use decisive force to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.

As darkness fell again in Iraq, Reuters eyewitnesses reported heavy U.S. artillery barrages near the Iraq border. U.S. cruise missiles slammed into Baghdad and several buildings were ablaze.

"They were expecting last night to be more of a success," the military source said. "If they had taken out Saddam, would we have continued with the same program of attacks? No, we wouldn't. We would do it a different way. The view is now 'get the hell moving'.

Earlier, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon had cautioned against expecting the war to be over quickly, echoing the words of Bush, who said war could be "longer and more difficult than some predict."

Queen Elizabeth expressed hope for a swift and decisive war at "this difficult moment in our nation's history."

HIGH STAKES

It is a high-stakes war for Blair, facing the worst crisis of what had been a charmed premiership, with ministers resigning, demonstrators blocking streets and opinion polls showing most Britons oppose war.

That's just at home.

In Europe, Blair faces bitter opposition for his pro-U.S. stance from the big powers -- a diplomatic standoff that could affect everything from finance to farming if left unchecked.

"There is a difference of opinion between us and France in relation to where we are at the moment...but we want to look forward," said a spokesman for Blair, hoping to forge common ground in Europe on rebuilding a post-war Iraq.

Blair and Chirac were rumored to be seated opposite each other at Thursday's working dinner, with fellow leaders sure to scour the body language to gauge chances for reconciliation.

A spokesman said Blair would meet one-on-one with some of the key leaders but had not requested private talks with Chirac.

"They've got dinner tonight, obviously there'll be opportunities for people to talk," he said. "No one is going from either side expecting...the other to change their mind."

Britain, Spain and Italy back military action, while France and Germany have led the anti-war camp at the United Nations.

Britain has committed 45,000 troops to help Washington.


photo credit and caption:
A British Harrier GR7 pilot gives the thumbs up as he taxis to the runway before a mission over Iraq, from a base in Kuwait March 20, 2003. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said on Thursday war in Iraq may not be won fast and announced that Prime Minister Tony Blair would speak to the nation once UK forces were substantially engaged. Photo by Russell Boyce/Reuters

Copyright 2003 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 
 
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