BAGHDAD (Reuters)–The United States attacked key targets in Baghdad with cruise missiles on Thursday–setting government buildings on fire–and with its British allies sent advance ground troops into Iraqi territory.
Events unfolded swiftly on the first day of a US-led campaign aimed at occupying Iraq and destroying the rule of President Saddam Hussein.
Witnesses in the Iraqi capital reported several explosions near government buildings as cruise missiles swooped down–shaking the city with massive explosions. There was relatively little Iraqi anti-aircraft fire.
After two waves of attacks–the skies quieted once again. But the main brunt of the assault was yet to come–US and British officials said.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the initial missile and bombing attacks in and around Baghdad were just a first taste of what would soon be unleashed.
"What will follow will not be a repeat of any other conflict. "It will be of a force and a scope and a scale that has been beyond what we have seen before,” he said.
To the south–US and British forces entered Iraq–crossing the desert border from Kuwait under cover of an intense artillery barrage. Large explosions were reported in the direction of the Iraqi city of Basra.
A British military source said the main offensive was about to begin. US officials said their aim would be to "shock and awe” the enemy to the point that Iraqi leaders and soldiers would lose the will to resist.
In Baghdad–Reuters reporter Nadim Ladki said missiles flew in at a very low altitude and hit several targets. He could see buildings ablaze in the southeast of the city and around the planning ministry in the center of the Baghdad.
FLAMES OUT OF CONTROL
Fire fighters and ambulances were driving to the scene but US television networks showed the flames roaring out of control and smoke rising high into the night sky.
Iraqi radio said missiles hit one of Saddam’s many residences in the city but nobody was hurt.
It was the second round of US attacks after Saddam defied a US ultimatum to leave the country. The previous raid at dawn on Thursday targeted the Iraqi president himself and his senior leadership but the results were not clear. State-run Iraqi television said four of their soldiers and five wounded on Thursday.
Three hours after the raids began–a grim-faced Saddam appeared on state television in military uniform–black beret and thick-rimmed glasses.
"The criminal little Bush has committed a crime against humanity,” he said–reading from notes. It was unclear whether he was appearing live or whether his statement was recorded.
Units of the US Marine 1st Expeditionary Force crossed from Kuwait into southern Iraq to begin securing positions for a thrust northward by US and British troops massed in Kuwait near the border–US officials said.
The Kuwaiti news agency said US-led troops had captured the Iraqi border town of Umm Qasr.
A number of Iraqi troops–who had been laying a mine field–surrendered to US Marines who had just crossed into Iraq–a CBS radio reporter traveling with the unit said.
Reuters correspondent David Fox–reporting from near the Kuwaiti border–said he heard big explosions from the direction of Basra–which will be an important early objective of the ground invasion.
Other reporters saw US missiles strike areas in southern Iraq as well as helicopter gunships firing at ground targets. About 280,000 US and British troops are in the Gulf region–many of them in Kuwait–poised to invade Iraq.
IRAQ FIRES AT KUWAIT
Iraq responded to the first US attack with several missile strikes on northern Kuwait. All missed their targets or were intercepted by US missiles.
Rumsfeld urged Iraqi citizens to stay in their homes and told Iraqi troops to disobey any orders to use chemical weapons or destroy oil wells. He said those who surrendered would have a place in a future free Iraq but those who fought would share Saddam’s fate.
Rumsfeld said Iraq may have set fire to three or four oil wells in the south of the country. Kuwait television said several wells near Basra had been set alight by Iraqi troops. Iraqi Oil Minister Amir Muhammed Rasheed denied the reports.
Reaction to the US attack was swift and largely negative–as nations that had opposed the American effort to disarm Iraq decried the conflict and Arab protesters took to the streets.
In the United States–thousands of protesters–some chained together–blocked streets in San Francisco and other cities–saying they wanted to show the world many Americans oppose the war. US polls have shown a large majority of Americans rallying behind Bush and the war.