The United States and its allies began a war of disarmament of Iraq early Thursday Baghdad time, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced. U.S. President George W. Bush planned to address the nation just over two hours after expiration of the deadline given Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq or face war.

“The initial phases of the disarmanent of Iraq have begun,” Fleischer said.

”Anti-aircraft guns were heard firing in Baghdad.”

Earlier, U.S. and British aircraft earlier Wednesday pounded targets in Iraq’s southern no-fly zone and dropped leaflets telling Iraqi soldiers how to surrender, a U.S. Air Force spokeswoman based at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia told United Press International. She said the targets of the strikes were communication, artillery and air defense facilities.

Similar strikes have been carried out regularly since December 1998, but the leaflet drop was the first time that Iraqi troops have received instructions on how to avoid being harmed should the invasion begin.

The leaflets, in Arabic, advise soldiers to park their vehicles in square formations and then stay at least a kilometer away from them. It says that they should display white flags, disarm themselves and avoid approaching U.S.-led forces.

About 250,000 American, 45,000 British and 2,000 Australian troops were massed in the Persian Gulf to be used against Iraq.

On Monday, Bush gave Saddam and his two sons a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Baghdad or face war. The deadline expired at about 8 p.m. EST, or 4 a.m. Thursday Iraq time. Despite stiff opposition at the U.N. Security Council, Bush said past U.N. resolutions gave him the authority to disarm Iraq by force.

It seemed as if some Iraqi soldiers took the leaflets to heart right away. Pentagon officials told UPI that 17 had surrendered to U.S. forces Wednesday, even before the start of hostilities. They said they could not provide further details, but CNN reported the men had been taken into custody by Kuwaiti officials.

A separate news report suggested the might have started already.

The British Evening Standard newspaper reported on its Web site that British and American Special Forces were already fighting near Basra, the southern Iraqi port city that was heavily targeted in the first night of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Pentagon officials would not comment on the report.

At the White House, officials said the president — after his usual round of intelligence briefings — spent much of the day going over war plans with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, among others.

Later he sent Congress a formal notification of his plans to use military force in Iraq, saying that further diplomacy would neither adequately protect the national security of the United States nor lead to the enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iraq’s disarmament of its suspected chemical and biological weapons.

The White House said there were no plans to officially mark the passage of the deadline. Spokesman Ari Fleischer could not say whether the president was seeking any type of spiritual guidance or support as he was about to give the order for war.

At some point either prior to the war or shortly after hostilities begin, Bush is expected to again speak to the nation, this time from the Oval Office.

The mood inside the executive mansion was subdued as Bush’s deadline passed.

There was no indication that the president would order immediate military action, and some areas in middle Iraq faced wind and sand storms. But the reality of military action did not seem far off. Fleischer told reporters “Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life. Americans ought to be prepared for the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein to protect the peace.”

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair also convened a meeting of his war Cabinet, and the U.K. Foreign Office issued a warning to Britons all over the world to beware. “The risk of indiscriminate terrorist attacks in public places, including tourist sites, will be especially high during military action in Iraq,” a statement said.

Tuesday, Saddam and his eldest son, Uday, rejected Bush’s ultimatum, with Uday saying Iraqis “will make the mothers and wives of the U.S. and British invading soldiers shed blood instead of tears on their sons and husbands” if a they start a war.

The Iraqis intensified their preparations for a war, and prices of drinking water, gold and dollars rose. Ministries and government institutions were fortified with sandbags.

Hadir al-Rabie, a 37-year-old journalist, told UPI the Iraqis were also trying to access water by digging wells in their gardens.

“We are also stockpiling fuel,” said al-Rabie, but he added that he worried that “if a bomb strikes near the house, it will immediately be set on fire.”

Bush’s ultimatum Monday came at the end of two days of failing diplomacy. He and the leaders of Britain, Spain and Portugal, blunted by Russian and French veto threats in the U.N. Security Council last week, met in a hurriedly prepared summit in the Azores Sunday. They agreed that March 17 would be the last day of diplomacy in the Iraq crisis.

Monday morning, U.S. and British representatives decided against seeking a vote on the U.N. resolution that they proposed several weeks ago to try to get Security Council support for force.

The draft required nine votes in the Security Council to be approved but had only the support of the United States, Spain, Britain and Bulgaria. Six other members — Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan — were undecided. France and Russia threatened a veto. Germany, China and Syria also opposed the motion.

Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — permanent members of the panel — have veto power in the council.

The impasse at the Security Council began last September when Bush told the U.N. General Assembly to confront the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq — or stand aside as the United States acts. In November, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the U.S.-sponsored Resolution 1441, which authorized the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq and “serious consequences” if Baghdad failed to cooperate.

Since then, Bush has repeatedly maintained that Saddam has lied to the international community and must be disarmed with force. He said if the world body did not act against Iraq, the United States will along with a “coalition of the willing.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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