The targeting of top Iraqi officials Thursday marked the opening salvo of the U.S.-led war against Iraq that President Bush warned “could be longer and more difficult than some predict.”

A U.S. government official told United Press International the military targeted a residence in Baghdad after “senior Iraqi leadership” arrived there. The information came “in a fairly timely fashion” sometime Wednesday afternoon, compelling a fast strike before the Iraqi leaders left.

The official would not identify the target or targets of the strike, but a defiant Saddam Hussein addressed Iraq apparently live on state-run television shortly afterward.

Earlier, President Bush, in his own televised address, announced the commencement of military hostilities against Saddam’s regime.

“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger,” he said in the nationwide address at 10:15 p.m. EST, 6:15 a.m. Baghdad time.

He said coalition forces had begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam’s ability to wage war.

“These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign,” he said.

Television news networks carried showed images of air defense shells exploding in the sky over Baghdad. A UPI reporter in Baghdad said the missiles were followed by volleys from air defense machine guns and sirens, adding it was not immediately known what the anti-aircraft guns were attempting to hit. He said it also was not clear what if any targets had been hit by the U.S. strikes.

CNN reported more than 40 cruise missiles and several F-117 Nighthawk fighter jets were unleashed against at least two time-critical targets — one in Baghdad and one south of the city — and said they were a “decapitation strike.”

NBC reported that B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers also took part in the strike against a “key air node” and a “national command center.” A senior official may also have been targeted, according to NBC and CNN.

Bush said the United States would use decisive force to limit the length of the campaign. About 250,000 American, 45,000 British and 2,000 Australian troops were massed in the Persian Gulf to be used against Iraq.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard told lawmakers troops from his nation were engaged in combat.

“For operational and security reasons which I ask the house and public to understand I cannot give any specific details but I can inform the house and inform the Australian public in general that forces have commenced combat and combat support operations,” he said.

Bush warned that the military campaign could be longer than expected.

“A campaign on the harsh terrain on a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict, and helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment.”

He said, however, the United States will emerge victorious.

“We will defend out freedom. We will bring freedom to others,” he said. “And we will prevail.”

In an unprecedented, apparently live appearance on television, Saddam lambasted Bush’s decision to go to war.

“The criminal junior Bush has committed the crime he has threatened Iraq and humanity with,” he said.

He vowed his country will win.

“We will confront the invaders and we will get them, God willing, where they will lose their patience and lose any hope of accomplishing what they were driven to by the criminal Zionists,” Saddam said.

On Wednesday, U.S. and British aircraft pounded targets in Iraq’s southern no-fly zone and dropped leaflets telling Iraqi soldiers how to surrender, a U.S. Air Force spokeswoman told UPI. 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 they should display white flags, disarm themselves and avoid approaching U.S.-led forces. 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.

On Monday, Bush gave Saddam and his two sons a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Baghdad or face war. They rejected the threat. 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.

White House officials said Bush 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 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.

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.

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 acted. In November, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved the U.S.-sponsored Res. 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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