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Bush: U.S. Launches Strike Against Iraq


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The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 10:34 PM

U.S. forces launched a strike against "targets of military opportunity" in Iraq, President Bush said Wednesday night. He described the action as the opening salvo in an operation to "disarm Iraq and to free its people."

Bush spoke after the U.S. military struck with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs against a site near Baghdad, where Iraqi leaders were thought to be, U.S. government officials said. There was no indication whether the attack was successful.

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.

Bush addressed the nation about two hours after his 8 p.m. EST ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to give up power.

"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," Bush said in his address to the nation. "We will accept no outcome but victory."

He spoke as a U.S-led force of 300,000 troops ringed Iraq, ready to launch a ferocious assault to topple the Iraqi dictator and capture any weapons of mass destruction.

"On my order, coalition forces have begun targeting selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," the president said. "These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign."

As he has many times in the run-up to war, Bush declared that the United States has "no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat. Our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had announced Bush's plans to speak on short notice.

Fleischer spoke as anti-aircraft fire and explosions were heard across Baghdad after air raid sirens went off at the capital at dawn.

The U.S. official declined to identify the leaders who were targeted or to say whether the attack was successful.

However, a second official said the plan for targeting Iraqi leadership included using F-117 stealth bombers and a handful of cruise missiles.

Fleischer did not elaborate on his statement, but U.S. officials said it signaled the beginning of military action against Iraq.

The statement came at the end of an anxious day of waiting at the White House.

Bush scrutinized final battle plans and told Congress why he was poised to launch the largest pre-emptive attack in U.S. history.

"The disarmament of the Iraqi regime will begin at a time of the president's choosing," said his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, moments after the deadline passed. "The American people are ready for the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. They understand what's at stake. The military is ready, the nation is ready and the cause is just."

After meeting yet again with Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush had just finished dinner Wednesday night and was in the living room of the White House residence with first lady Laura Bush when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, called. Card informed the president hat intelligence officials had no information that Saddam had left Iraq.

Earlier, Fleischer spoke of somber realities of war.

"Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life," he said.

Extra security enveloped the executive mansion while aides inside whispered rumors of Iraqi defections and surrenders.

One official rushed past the Oval Office at lunchtime, glanced at his watch and grimaced. Eight more hours, he said.

The president began his day with the usual briefing from FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet. He also met throughout the day with his war council, including Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

They reviewed the final details for war in Iraq, aides said, poring over weather forecasts and troop positions.

Bush also discussed battle plans by telephone with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has sent 40,000 British troops to the Persian Gulf.

An Oval Office address that would announce the beginning of hostilities was nearly complete. White House speechwriters had been working on it for days.

Bush himself sent Congress formal notice that he had determined "further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone" would not be enough to contain the "threat posed by Iraq." Bush has contended that Saddam possesses chemical and biological weapons that he could use on his enemies or slip to terrorists.

Bush closed the window to diplomacy Monday when he addressed the nation, but the congressional notification was required under the terms of a resolution passed last year to authorize military action.

The resolution also required Bush to verify that ousting Saddam would not hurt the global war on terrorism. Bush complied with a seven-page report asserting that Iraq supports terrorist networks, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.

Offering fresh justification for war, the report said one of the spoils of victory may be information about terror cells in the United States.

"United States government personnel operating in Iraq may discover information through Iraqi government documents and interviews with detained Iraqi officials that would identify individuals currently in the United States and abroad who are linked to terrorist organizations," the report said.

White House officials said the assertion was mostly speculative.

The United States has initiated attacks in such places as Grenada and Panama, but war in Iraq would set a new standard for pre-emptive military action.

Fleischer offered no promises of a swift or easy conflict.

"On the brink of war with Iraq, Americans should be prepared for what we hope will be as precise, short a conflict as possible, but there are many unknowns and it could be a matter of some duration," the spokesman said.

The president also met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who emerged from the White House to say the long national debate about whether to go to war is over.

Bloomberg made a pitch for more money to help his city prevent a terrorist attack and respond to any that occurs.

2003 The Associated Press