WASHINGTON — War erupted Wednesday night as the United States launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles and aimed 2,000-pound bombs at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other “leadership targets” in Baghdad.
The strike was aimed at “decapitating” Saddam’s regime and targeted him, his two sons and other senior leaders of the Baath Party and Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, according to a senior Bush administration official.
Saddam’s fate was not immediately known, though Iraqi television Thursday broadcast what it said was a live statement by him vowing defiance.
“We pledge in the name of the fighting people and its heroic army that we will confront the invaders,” he said.
President Bush announced the attack in a four-minute television speech to the nation.
“On my order, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war,” he said. “These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.”
Minutes before the speech, an internal television monitor showed the president pumping his fist. “Feels good,” he said.
The attack came after a lengthy meeting between Bush and his national security advisers.
“They decided not to wait, to go after Saddam Hussein now,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with well-placed sources in the Pentagon. He said administration officials feared missing an opportunity to kill Saddam.
And so, the second Gulf War erupted at around 5:30 a.m. local time, 9:30 p.m. EST — about 90 minutes after the 8 p.m. Wednesday deadline set by the president for Hussein’s capitulation.
“Welcome to the front line,” Army Maj. Frank McClary told officers from the 3rd Infantry Division as they stood between Kuwait and Iraq.
U.S. officers said Army engineers were startled when two Iraqi soldiers surrendered before hostilities began. The Pentagon reported that at least 17 Iraqis surrendered to allied forces rather than face U.S. forces.
The Iraqi military has about 389,000 troops, but U.S. Army officials believe that only the 15,000 elite Republican Guard troops may be loyal enough to fight to the end and that thousands of others will defect during the first hours of bombing.
“Some will defect immediately and go to their homes,” said one Army official, who requested anonymity. “Others will wait, knowing that if they turn themselves in as POWs, they’ll get a good meal.”
“Once we cross the international border, it’s a fight from there,” said McClary, 39, of Andrews, S.C.
“I don’t know whether to be excited or nervous,” Spec. David M. Beebe, 20, of Gadsden, Ala., said as he sat atop an M113 armored personnel carrier.
As darkness fell and sentries took to their posts, Hibbs sent a final message of the night to his troops. He told them to get some rest.
“You’re going to need it tomorrow,” he said. “We’ve got some long days coming up.”