U.S. Launches Strikes on Iraq

The U.S.-led assault on Iraq began today just as the new dawn was breaking over Baghdad.

The first salvo in "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was a barrage of about 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles and attacks by F-117 stealth fighters dropping precision-guided bombs against a "target of opportunity" near Baghdad, believed to include high-ranking Iraqi leaders, U.S. officials said.

"On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," President Bush said in a 10:15 p.m. ET address to the nation.

Coming about 90 minutes after Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq expired, the attack was not the start of the massive "A-Day" air assault planned by the United States and its coalition to "shock and awe" Iraqi forces into submission, officials said.

The early attack was launched because the United States had intelligence that "very senior leadership" of Iraq was in one place, sources told ABCNEWS.

Because it was "not part of the plan," U.S. officials now are keeping an eye on the Iraqi response to see if they have to accelerate the original A-Day plan, a senior military official said.

Sirens, Explosions

In Baghdad, air raid sirens began howling just before daybreak, around 5:30 a.m. local time (9:30 p.m. ET), followed by about 10 minutes of anti-aircraft fire, according to ABCNEWS' Richard Engel.

Later, another series of explosions could be heard outside the city, and subsequent bursts of explosions erupted periodically.

It was unclear exactly what the missiles hit, but sources described the target as a residence in the southern part of the city. U.S. intelligence was trying to assess the results of the attack.

However, after the initial attacks, Saddam Hussein's son Odai reportedly spoke on Iraqi radio, saying, "God bless Saddam and God protect Iraq" — though it was unclear if the message was live or taped.

Planning

First official U.S. confirmation of the attacks came from White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer at around 9:45 p.m. ET.

"The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun," Fleischer told reporters, before walking away from the podium.

Sources said the president decided between 6:30 p.m. and 7:20 p.m. ET, during his third war council meeting of the day, to launch the attack. Afterward, he met briefly with his speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and then headed to the White House residence for dinner.

Soon after his evening announcement of the attacks, Bush was said to have gone to sleep for the evening.

Deadline Passes

On Monday, Bush gave the Iraqi president and his sons, Odai and Qusai Hussein, 48 hours, ending at 8 p.m. ET tonight, to leave the country or face military action.

Bush's nationally televised ultimatum brought to an end six months of frantic diplomacy at the U.N. Security Council, with France leading the call to give U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq more time to complete the disarmament process.

At a Security Council meeting before the attacks began, France, along with Russia and Germany, once again spoke out against a war with Iraq.

Addressing the Speaking Council just hours before the end of Bush's 48-hour ultimatum, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said his country would help the war effort, "if today, we really had indisputable facts demonstrating that from the territory of Iraq there was a direct threat to the United States."

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