The United States began its war against Iraq on Wednesday by bombing selected targets in the outskirts of Baghdad and President George W Bush pledged to use decisive force to remove President Saddam Hussein from power.
After a crisis that has built for many months, the war began at around dawn, Iraqi time, 90 minutes after a US ultimatum for Saddam to leave the country expired.
But instead of the awesome display of force predicted by military analysts to stun and shock Iraqi troops, the war began with a targeted strike, apparently based on intelligence information, aimed at a specific senior Iraqi target or targets, a US government source said.
The F-117A stealth fighters and long-range cruise missiles to open its war against Iraq on Thursday morning, striking at senior Iraqi leadership targets near Baghdad, US officials said.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the limited attack shortly before dawn was not yet the opening of a massive rain of cruise missiles and bombs expected in coming days.
The US officials said radar-avoiding F-117a stealth fighters based in the Gulf region were used to bomb targets and that a limited number of long-range cruise missiles were used.
Reuters correspondent Nadim Ladki, reporting from the center of Baghdad, said the first blasts seemed to come from the southern and eastern suburbs. Heavy plumes of black smoke billowed from the east after the same target appeared to have been hit three or four times. Several explosions later hit the city center.
AIMED AT LEADERS
The US government source said the surgical strike was aimed at elements of the Iraqi leadership pinpointed by American intelligence agencies. He said the result of the strike was not known.
"US intelligence had information pointing to targets of opportunity ... that might involve elements of the Iraqi leadership," the source told Reuters, but declined to identify the targets.
The United States also succeeded in taking over Iraqi state radio and broadcasting a message to the Iraqi people that Saddam's days were numbered.
"This is the day we have been waiting for," an announcer said in Arabic shortly after the normal Iraqi broadcast went off the air suddenly, minutes after the air strikes began.
Another Baghdad radio station run by Saddam's elder son Uday played a military song and called on local people to resist: "This is our day. Let us start the fight. We will be victorious. We will all die as faithful martyrs."
Police cars with sirens wailing raced through otherwise deserted streets. Air raid sirens had begun wailing out within a minute of the first strike.
Some 275,000 US and troops had awaited the order from Bush to launch an assault on Iraq. Saddam ignored Bush's ultimatum to leave the country with his two sons by Wednesday at 8 p.m EST (0100 GMT), which was 4 a.m on Thursday in Iraq.
Reuters correspondents saw nine US strike aircraft taking off between 0030 and 0130 GMT from Qatar's Al Udeid air base.
They turned on their afterburners and climbed away almost vertically from the desert base. Two large aerial refuelers accompanied the jets in bright moonlight.
US and British troops moved into the demilitarised zone that straddles the Iraq-Kuwait border on Wednesday. The zone extends five km into Kuwait and 10 km into Iraq. Soldiers donned chemical suits at desert staging posts that were swept by fierce sandstorms.
"Let's get this show on the road. Play time is over," said Staff Sgt. Lavert Mitchell of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division, who with colleagues was packing his backpack and checking equipment, ready to move into action from his desert base in Kuwait.
On aircraft carriers and at land bases, pilots prepared for what is expected to be one of the most ferocious aerial bombardments in history.
US officials had predicted that upward of 3,000 satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles would be unleashed from sea and air on targets vital to Saddam's government to start to the war.
British and US aircraft dropped almost 2 million leaflets over southeastern Iraq urging Iraqi soldiers not to use weapons of mass destruction or torch oil wells, and advising them to lay down their weapons rather than die for a lost cause.
Seventeen Iraqi soldiers gave themselves up to US-led forces in northern Kuwait, the US military said.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said in Baghdad the invaders were facing "definite death." Iraqi legislators vowed to die for their leader.
Oil prices dropped to a 13-week low, the dollar weakened and stocks retreated from early highs after the US-led attack on Iraq started.