Ready to move: British troops in Kuwait on Thursday.Image: AP
War Begins With a Burst of Missile Fire
March 20, 2003
The U.S-led military campaign begins against Iraq in the early hours of Thursday morning. Turkey opens way for coalition forces to use its airspace, but not its bases.
Operation Iraqi Freedom began early Thursday, but it wasn't the blitzkrieg of 3,000 cruise missiles the American media have been predicting for weeks. Instead, it came in the form of the 40-missile "decapitation attack" aimed at killing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
With the thunder-like crackling of missiles over the skies of Baghdad that lasted about 15 minutes, the first explosions began in the Iraqi capital around 3:35 a.m. Central European Time, shortly after air raid sirens went off. Clouds of smoke were also seen from the edges of the city. The explosions came from missiles and anti-aircraft fire.
Minutes later, the White House said the attack marked the "opening stages" of the war to overthrow Saddam.
"Selected targets of military importance"
American action began shortly before President George W. Bush gave an early morning address from the Oval Office. "American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," He said the United States had struck "selected targets of military importance" intended to undermine Saddam's ability to wage war.
"We will not end this campaign without victory," he said.
The president said that the first phase of the war would be "broad and coordinated," and that the United States and its 35-nation "coalition of the willing" would seek to avoid civilian casualties.
But the "decapitation" attack seemed to have missed Saddam, who appeared later on Thursday wearing a uniform and black beret on Iraqi television. Saddam called on his compatriots to resist, saying, "You will be victorious against your enemies." He derided the U.S. attack as "cowardly aggression" intended to drive him from power. However, it remains unclear when the broadcast was shot, and there are doubts as to whether the speaker was indeed the Iraqi president.
Hours after the strikes began, Turkey's parliament voted to allow the U.S. military to use Turkish airspace for the war, giving U.S. bombers more room in which to work. The government-backed proposal will allow U.S. warplanes based in Europe or the United States to cross Turkey to strike Iraq. The United States could also use Turkish airspace to transport troops into northern Iraq or to bring supplies to the region.
But the proposal would not allow U.S. planes to use Turkish air bases or refuel in Turkey. The United States, for example, will not be able to use Incirlik air base, a sprawling facility that houses 50 U.S. fighters used to patrol a no-fly zone over Iraq.
War begins after ultimatum expires
The beginning of hostilities came less than two hours after the 48-hour ultimatum that Bush gave Saddam to leave Iraq had expired. On Monday, Bush ordered Saddam and his sons to go into exile or face war. "Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict," Bush said, "commenced at a time of our choosing."
According to media reports, that time came after a four-hour meeting Bush held with CIA Director George Tenet and Pentagon officials, who told the president that he would miss a "target of opportunity" if he did not act immediately.
Taken together, the United States and Britain have deployed more than 280,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a war. Other countries, including Australia and Poland have also contributed a small number of troops to the war effort.
After the United States opened its war against Iraq with a burst of cruise missiles, air raid sirens sounded over Kuwait City late Thursday morning, and coalition and Kurdish forces massed in northern Iraq.
Around 9:30 a.m. Central European Time, sources in Kuwait reported the first evidence of attacks by Iraqi forces in retaliation to the U.S. airstrikes on Baghdad. Missiles, thought to be Al Samoud rockets like those Iraq had been destroying under U.N. supervision, were launched into the northern desert near Mutlaa Ridge.
None of the Iraqi missiles caused injuries or damage, and one was intercepted by a Patriot missile, U.S. officers said.
The attack sent Kuwaiti and U.S. soldiers scurrying for their gas masks and chemical weapons gear. But after 45 minutes on high alert, the all clear was sounded.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that three to four oil wells were burning in southern Iraq and warned Iraqi officers from setting others on fires, saying they would be committing a war crime. During the first Gulf War, retreating Iraqi forces set hundreds of Kuwaiti oil fields on fire, creating an environmental disaster.
Iraqi mortar fire reported
In the north, coalition troops and Kurdish militia fighters spent a tense night just miles from the front line where Iraqi troops gathered in anticipation of a northern assault. News of mortar fire into the Kurdish controlled area around Chamchanal was reported on Thursday, a day after a similar attack on the same area. Kurdish sources said 40 rounds had been fired at the town of Saidan from Iraqi troops massed on the border of Saddam-controlled Iraq on Wednesday night.
Sources suggested that the "shock and awe" campaign promised at the start of hostilities was imminent as U.S and British forces continued to take up battle positions on the Iraq-Kuwait border ready to push north as the day progressed.