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