March 20, 2003: It was 5:35 a.m. local time when the first bombs fell on Baghdad. The explosions came first, then the air-raid sirens, and last-belatedly-the rat-tat-tat of anti-aircraft fire. Despite months of warnings and a final, 48-hour ultimatum, the city's defenders were caught by surprise. On the streets of Baghdad, fear and dread were about to be replaced by shock and awe.
President Bush waited only an hour to inform the American people that the war had begun at last. With Baghdad still smoldering from the initial air strike, he went before the TV cameras at 10:15 p.m. with a grim but determined message. "This will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory," the president vowed, warning that the conflict "could be longer and more difficult than some predict."
For the first few days of the war, such caution seemed unwarranted. Although the opening air strike of March 20 failed in its goal of killing Saddam Hussein, American air power quickly proved both overwhelming and deadly accurate. Armed with laser- and satellite-guided weaponry, coalition aircraft flew upwards of 2,000 sorties daily, destroying Iraqi airfields, missile launchers, and government buildings with pinpoint accuracy.
On the ground, the Army's Third Infantry Division swept almost unchallenged through the southern desert, closing within 50 miles of Baghdad in just one week. U.S. and British Marines captured Iraq's only deepwater port, Navy SEALs overwhelmed prized oil rigs just off the coast, and special forces secured two airports in the western desert that could have launched missile attacks on Israel. Most encouraging of all, perhaps, coalition troops never faced their worst-case scenario of chemical or biological attacks. Perhaps Saddam's military power had been grossly overestimated.
And then, just as suddenly as the war itself had started, the good news seemed to stop. Despite advancing rapidly through 300 miles of desert, coalition forces could not claim complete victory in a single city from Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border. Saddam loyalists terrorized Shiite villagers in the south, preventing the large-scale uprising military planners had hoped for. Guerilla fighters harassed supply lines and interrupted the flow of vital humanitarian aid. Precious manpower was diverted from the front to shore up defenses in the rear. The steady march on Baghdad ground to a disheartening halt.
The mood shifted again on April 1, however, when Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old American POW, was freed in a daring night raid on the hospital where she had been held for more than a week. That same day, ground forces surrounded the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the last population center before Baghdad. The battle for the capital had begun, military spokesmen announced. U.S. troops were ready to enter the Red Zone.
Just eight days later, Saddam was toppled-both literally and figuratively. It happened with breathtaking speed as the dictator's defenders crumbled before an American onslaught. Coalition warplanes hammered the positions of the elite Republican Guard, destroying the regime's last line of defense. Although there were no mass surrenders, many Guard members who were not killed simply abandoned their stations and shed their uniforms, leaving the capital virtually unprotected.
On April 7, American forces made a bold, daylight raid into the heart of the city, discrediting Saddam's propaganda machine and disheartening his die-hard supporters. Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf insisted during a press conference that the Americans were not in Baghdad-even as the presidential palace smoldered in the background. The next day, Mr. Sahhaf disappeared, along with the last vestiges of the old regime. An American tank helped topple a statue of the dictator, and Iraqis danced openly on the bronze body of their oppressor. It was exactly 21 days since the first bombs had fallen. According to the Pentagon, 83 Americans were listed as killed in action or missing in action.
There would be more deaths, of course, particularly in the battle for Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. But the fall of Baghdad clearly marked the war's psychological tipping point, and U.S. forces quickly shifted into mop-up mode: searching for banned weapons, rebuilding ruined infrastructure, and arresting top members of the former regime.
Officially the end came three weeks later, when President Bush declared in a May 1 speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln that the war's major combat phase was over. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001, and still goes on," the president told 5,000 cheering sailors. "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."
True. But the tide would begin turning against the president's handling of postwar Iraq.