United States Launches 'Decapitation' Strike Against Iraq; Saddam Personally Targeted
Thursday, March 20, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq   The United States launched its opening attack against Iraq Thursday morning, smashing "targets of military opportunity" in a pre-dawn "decapitation" strike after President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave the country passed unheeded. Iraq responded hours later, sending Scud missiles towards U.S. troops stationed in Kuwait, but reports say that at least one was intercepted by American Patriot missiles.

U.S. officials told Fox News the attack targeted Saddam personally, and that the barrage of cruise missiles and bombs would be a prelude to a major invasion of Iraq.

U.S. officials said one of the main hits in Iraq was on a residence that contains a heavily fortified bunker where they believe Saddam and some other key Iraqi leaders were sleeping for the night. The sources added there was still no word if the hit was successful at all.

Instead of an all-out aerial bombardment, the opening salvo turned out to be a surgical strike aimed at eliminating Saddam and his inner circle even before an invasion. After the initial hit, Fox News learned that two Iraqi missles were intercepted in Kuwait -- one in the desert area of Mutlaa not far from the border.

Coinciding with the attack, about 1,000 U.S. troops launched a raid on villages in southeastern Afghanistan, hunting for members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. It was the biggest U.S. operation there in over a year, and appeared to signal to Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants that war with Iraq would not mean any kind of respite for them.

The State Department warned U.S. citizens abroad that they face increased danger of retaliatory terrorist actions and anti-American violence.

The first missiles hit targets in Baghdad shortly before dawn Thursday, less than two hours after Bush's deadline of 8 p.m. EST Wednesday for Saddam to yield power.

"These strikes are being characterized as a 'decapitation,' targeted at command and control nodes," U.S. spokesman Marine Colonel Chris Hughes told Reuters of the strike. "If successful, it will radically change the way we do things."

Bush briefly addressed the nation to announce that war had begun. He said the barrage was the opening salvo in a "broad and concerted" operation to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

"I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory," the president said.

U.S. and British troops massed in northern Kuwait were still awaiting orders to cross into Iraq, but welcomed news of the first strikes.

"It's about time," said Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sydney, Neb., a member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "We've been here a month and a week. We're ready to go."

Even before any shooting, 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to American soldiers. U.S. officers said they expected mass surrenders by Iraqi troops in the early stages of the war.

The initial salvos against Baghdad consisted of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs dropped from two F-117A Nighthawk stealth jets.

U.S. officials said the attacks were not a sign that the main air offensive against Iraq had begun, but were approved by Bush in response to intelligence on the whereabouts of Saddam and other Iraqi leaders.

Sources told Fox News that U.S. intelligence has been tracking five high-ranking Iraqi officials for several weeks, among them Saddam and his sons, Odai and Qusai.

About two hours after the cruise missiles hit, a subdued-looking Saddam seemed to appear on Iraqi television in a military uniform and vowed an Iraqi victory.

"We promise you that Iraq, its leadership and its people will stand up to the evil invaders," he said. "They will face a bitter defeat, God willing."

U.S. officials told Fox News they are reviewing the speech and attempting to see if it may have been taped, not live.

Shortly before dawn, air sirens blared in Baghdad, while yellow and white anti-aircraft tracers streaked through the sky. Several explosions could be heard.

Hundreds of armed members of Saddam's Baath party and security forces took up positions in Baghdad after the attack, though the streets of the capital were mostly empty of civilians. There were no signs during the day of regular army troops or armor in or outside Baghdad, where Saddam was widely expected to make his final stand.

Bahrain, a small Persian Gulf state allied with the United States, offered Saddam a haven Wednesday, the first such offer to be publicly extended to him. There was no immediate Iraqi comment on the offer.

Across the United States, the start of war was an emotional moment for families of U.S. troops.

"I thought I was prepared for this, but I'm really not," said Suzanne Hoefler of Coronado, Calif., whose husband, Navy Petty Officer John Hoefler, left in January for the Persian Gulf.

In other nations, reactions varied dramatically. Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, called the military action "unjustifiable and illegitimate," and China demanded a halt to the attack.

Support for Washington came from allies Britain and Japan, among others. Australia, which has contributed 2,000 soldiers to the U.S.-led force, said its warships and fighter jets were involved in combat support operations Thursday.

Israeli civilians began carrying gas masks to protect them from a possible retaliatory Iraqi attack.

In southeastern Afghanistan, helicopters ferried troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to a remote, mountainous area as the hunt for bin Laden and his terror network intensified. U.S. military officials in Washington said radio transmissions had been detected coming from caves above the villages.

It was the largest U.S. military operation in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda just over a year ago, an eight-day battle involving hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters against thousands of American and allied Afghan troops.

Fox News' Rita Cosby and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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