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War on Iraq Begins

By David E. Sanger and John F. Burns | New York Times | March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 19 — President Bush ordered the beginning of a war on Iraq tonight, and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said at about 9:45 p.m. Eastern time that American forces had begun to disarm Iraq and would depose Saddam Hussein.

The announcement came just 10 minutes after receiving word from Baghdad, where the American attack began, just before first light at 5:35 a.m. local time on Thursday. The first signs were an air raid siren followed by antiaircraft fire and loud explosions over the city that appeared to be bombs. The antiaircraft fire appeared to be ineffective, striking at low altitude over the city.

At least one impact was visible about a half mile from the Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad, throwing a great cloud of dust into the air.

The initial round of explosions took place over about 10 minutes and was followed by a lull. The first traffic of the day racing down the highway appeared to be drivers fleeing the attack.

“The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun,” Mr. Fleischer said in a brief news conference on television tonight.

The deadline for President Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq expired tonight as American troops massed on Iraq’s southern border, awaiting the order for the invasion plan that Mr. Bush and his war council completed only this afternoon.

Mr. Bush formally informed Congress, and then world leaders, that he was ready to depose Mr. Hussein by force. In a seven-page message to Congress, he argued that force was now the only way to “adequately protect the national security of the United States” and that topping the Iraqi government was “a vital part” of a broader war against terrorism. The message was required under a statute passed last fall explicitly authorizing war against Iraq after the president determined that a diplomatic solution was impossible.

As he completed the legal formalities, Mr. Bush was clearly embarked on one of the country’s most ambitious military ventures since Vietnam, and on a war his administration began planning over a year ago. “There are a lot of us,” said one of his more hawkish senior advisers, “who have been waiting for this day of liberation for years.”

Mr. Bush had given Mr. Hussein and members of his family until shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern time today to leave the country in order to forestall an American-led attack. But there was no discernible sign that the Iraqi leader was even thinking of leaving, despite an offer of asylum from Bahrain.

As the deadline passed tonight, Mr. Bush was eating dinner in the living room of the White House residence with his wife, Laura. He received a call from Andrew H. Card, the White House chief of staff, and asked Mr. Card if there was any evidence that Mr. Hussein had left Iraq. There was none, Mr. Card told him, according to Mr. Fleischer.

“The disarmament of the Iraqi regime,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters tonight, “will begin at a time of the president’s choosing.”

Even as punishing sandstorms swirled around the Army troops massed in Kuwait, the engineering battalions that will be in the vanguard of the invasion force — breaching berms and clearing minefields — were already on the move. Special Operations forces were reportedly already deployed inside Iraq, shaping the battlefield for the larger invasion force to come.

American and British warplanes flew bombing missions tonight against a dozen Iraqi artillery and surface-to-surface missile positions in southern Iraq, wiping out placements that could threaten advancing troops.

Roughly 17 Iraqi border troops surrendered along the border, and were taken into custody by Kuwaiti forces. A few administration officials seized on the defections as an early indicator of the mass defections they hope to see when the fighting begins.

But others in the administration warned against overconfidence, cautioning that toppling Mr. Hussein and the protective apparatus that has kept him in power for more than three decades is a far riskier enterprise than was ousting his forces from Kuwait 12 years ago in the Persian Gulf war.

Mr. Fleisher cautioned that “Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life.” He noted that while the White House sought “as precise, short a conflict as possible,” the unknowns — from how American, British and Australian troops would be received to the elements of weather, accident and so-called friendly fire — were numerous.

The notification to Congressional leaders, sent to Capitol Hill late on Tuesday night, provided the most detailed legal justification yet for military action.

Mr. Bush stayed largely out of sight today, save for a brief meeting this morning with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, to review New York City’s needs to prepare for any new terrorist attacks. The White House later said it would go to Congress for a special appropriation bill to pay for the war and homeland security.

Washington was eerily quiet, but there were isolated voices of dissent. “Today, I weep for my country,” Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat and the war’s biggest critic in the Senate said. “No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent, peacekeeper. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.”

The breach with Europe continued to widen. As Mr. Bush tried to convince Congress that the attack on Iraq would advance the war on terror, France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said the war would spawn more terrorism. The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, said, “Germany emphatically rejects the impending war.”

But while Germany allowed American troops to fly over its territory, Turkey was still arguing about opening its airspace. Turkey further said it would not allow United States forces to use its air bases to refuel — a remarkable slap from a NATO ally. Mr. Fleischer made clear that the $30 billion in proposed aid and loans to Turkey — dangled when it seemed as if the country would allow American and British forces to use its territory to invade Iraq from the north — is “no longer on the table.”

Mr. Fleischer disputed the view of Europeans and others who argue that the pending invasion is a violation of the United Nations Charter.

He cited three Security Council resolutions that he said provided all of the authorization Mr. Bush needed. But he also likened the current preparations to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, arguing that just as President Kennedy imposed a quarantine around Cuba — “an act of war,” Mr. Fleischer said — to force it to remove nuclear missiles, Mr. Bush is acting to protect the United States from a threat that it would never see coming.

Several scholars have disputed that view, noting that in the case of the missile crisis, the Soviet missiles could have easily reached the United States, and the weapons clearly put Americans at peril.

Mr. Bush argued on Monday night that waiting for the Iraq threat to develop was tantamount to “suicide.” The president’s definition seemed to fit what scholars say is the classic war of prevention.

“We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities,” the president said then.

The document submitted to Congress laid out yet another argument — Iraq’s current links to terrorists, an area in which the administration’s evidence has been scanty, and its potential for greater links in the future.

“Both because Iraq harbors terrorists and because Iraq could share weapons of mass destruction with terrorists who seek them for use against the United States, the use of force to bring Iraq into compliance with its obligations under U.N.S.C. resolutions would be a significant contribution to the war on terrorists of global reach,” the report to Congress said.

“A change in the current Iraqi regime would eliminate an important source of support for international terrorist activities,” it said. “It would likely also assist efforts to disrupt terrorist networks and capture terrorists around the globe. United States government personnel operating in Iraq may discover information through Iraqi government documents and interviews with detained Iraqi officials that would identify individuals currently in the United States and abroad who are linked to terrorist organizations.”

That rationale would seem, on its face, to support military action against many nations, from Pakistan to Indonesia. But Mr. Fleischer insisted that the conditions surrounding Iraq’s defiance were “unique.”

As the 48-hour ultimatum to Mr. Hussein to leave Iraq expired, Pentagon officials were deliberately vague on when American forces might strike. While it seemed unlikely that they could gain much tactical surprise at this late date, some officials said keeping Iraqi soldiers on edge would increase their anxiety, fuel their thoughts of defection and perhaps fill them with dread.

Their potential use of chemical weapons remains one of the biggest worries.

Hans Blix, one of the the chief United Nations inspector, said that “if they have any still, and that’s a big if, I would doubt that they would use it, because a lot of countries and people in the world are negative to the idea of waging war,” adding, “And if the Iraqis were to use any chemical weapons then, I think, the public opinion around the world will immediately turn against the Iraqis.”

Copyright 2003 New York Times Company

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