On March 17, George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of Iraq or face all-out war. In the end, however, he decided to grant the Iraqi dictator one more grace period-of about 90 minutes.
The first bombs hit Baghdad at 5:35 a.m. Thursday, less than two hours after the Bush-imposed deadline had passed. For 10 minutes the city rocked as one explosion after another shook the earth, sending clouds of smoke and debris into the dawn sky. From the ground, it must have seemed like the start of the long-threatened campaign of "shock and awe"-thousands of bombs dropped all at once in a concerted effort to destroy or demoralize the enemy.
Within the hour, however, President Bush took to the airwaves with a very different message: The strikes against Baghdad were surgical in nature, not the start of an all-out bombing offensive. "These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign," Mr. Bush said. "I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory."
The Pentagon later confirmed that the air strike consisted of approximately three dozen Tomahawk missiles launched from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, plus a handful of laser-guided bombs dropped by F-117A Stealth fighters. The dawn raid apparently targeted a private home outside Baghdad where top officials of the Iraqi government, including Saddam Hussein himself, were thought to be gathered. Though early details were sketchy, the administration seemed to be acting on fresh intelligence that a preemptive strike could decapitate the Iraqi leadership and greatly shorten the duration of the war.
Those hopes seemed quickly dashed. Though military officials expressed "guarded optimism" that several high-ranking Iraqi leaders had been killed, Saddam himself-or possibly one of his look-alikes, U.S. officials initially speculated-went on television to accuse the "reckless and criminal little Bush" of committing crimes "against Iraq and humanity." Wearing his military uniform and dark-rimmed glasses, a tired-looking Saddam-person called for jihad against the American invaders and quoted several times from the Quran.
Iraq responded to the bombing raid with more than just words. At least four missiles were fired into neighboring Kuwait, where nearly 300,000 American and British troops were massed for the impending invasion/liberation. Two of the Iraqi missiles were destroyed by U.S. Patriot interceptors, while two others landed near Camp Iwo Jima, a key logistics center for coalition forces in the Kuwaiti desert. Marines at the camp donned gas masks and retreated into bunkers, but they reported no casualties.
Early news reports from the Kuwait News Agency indicated that the incoming missiles were Iraqi Scuds, though other sources said they were likely al-Samouds or similar, shorter-range missiles. Saddam has long denied having Scuds, which were banned under the terms of the Gulf War ceasefire. If Iraq's first strike of the current war involved banned weapons, it was an ominous sign. Some analysts have said that Saddam would dare not use chemical or biological weapons for fear of proving himself a liar and alienating world opinion. A Scud missile attack, however, could indicate the Iraqi leader has given up on world opinion and intends to use all the resources in his illegal arsenal.
In Kuwait City, just 35 miles from the Iraqi border, no one was taking any chances. Roads to the airport were gridlocked within hours, and the government closed the area to all but existing ticket-holders. Air-raid sirens sounded continuously throughout the morning, clearing the streets of traffic and sending citizens scurrying into sealed-off rooms and other shelters. Even the stars of American network news appeared live from Kuwait City Thursday morning with gas masks covering their expensive coifs.
Meanwhile, officials confirmed that U.S. Special Forces were already active in southern Iraq, "preparing the battlefield" for a ground assault that seemed just days-even hours-away. One helicopter involved in those operations crashed Wednesday night, but none of the six crew members was killed and all were safely evacuated to Kuwait.