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WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. forces launched air strikes against "targets of military importance" in Iraq, President Bush said Wednesday night. He described the action as the opening salvo in an operation to "disarm Iraq, to free its people."
Bush spoke after the U.S. military struck with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs against a site near Baghdad, where Iraqi leaders were thought to be, U.S. government officials said. There was no indication whether the attack was successful.
"Now that the conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," the president said. "And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory."
The strikes used Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from F-117 Nighthawks, the Air Force's stealth fighter-bombers, military officials said.
Bush addressed the nation less than two hours after his 8 p.m. EST ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to give up power.
Bush gave the attack go-ahead near the end of a hastily arranged three-and-a-half-hour meeting with his war council -- including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was the third meeting of the day between Bush and the group.
Aides said the group pored over weather forecasts and troop positions, and Bush acted on the advice of his military commanders.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that military advisers originally did not intend to begin the assault Wednesday. However, Bush was told in the third meeting that fresh intelligence had prompted military planners to change their recommendation.
The official would not say what the intelligence was but said it prompted Bush to order the strike shortly after 6:30 p.m. EST.
The president then reviewed his address with his chief speechwriter and went to the residence for dinner with Laura Bush. They were in the living room when White House chief of staff Andrew Card called to inform the president that intelligence officials had no information that Saddam had left Iraq. Bush polished his remarks a final time and headed back to the Oval Office to deliver them to an anxious nation.
Moments before his image was beamed to a worldwide audience, Bush was asked by an aide how he was doing. "I feel great," Bush said, clenching his fist.
He spoke as a U.S.-led force of 300,000 troops ringed Iraq, ready to launch a ferocious assault to topple the Iraqi dictator and capture any weapons of mass destruction.
The United States has initiated attacks in such places as Grenada and Panama, but war in Iraq would set a new standard for pre-emptive military action.
A U.S. military official said about three dozen cruise missiles were fired from a small number of ships -- perhaps as few as two -- in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The official said they were fired at "leadership targets," but he was not certain whether Saddam was a target.
"On my order, coalition forces have begun targeting selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," the president said. "These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign."
As he has many times in the run-up to war, Bush declared that the United States has "no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat. Our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had announced Bush's plans to speak on short notice.
Fleischer spoke as anti-aircraft fire and explosions were heard across Baghdad after air raid sirens went off at the capital at dawn.
A U.S. official declined to identify which leaders were targeted or to say whether the attack was successful.
However, a second official said the plan for targeting Iraqi leadership included using F-117 stealth bombers and a handful of cruise missiles.
Bush's speech came at the end of an anxious day of waiting at the White House.
The president scrutinized final battle plans and told Congress why he was poised to launch the largest pre-emptive attack in U.S. history.
After meeting yet again with Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush had just finished dinner Wednesday night and was in the living room of the White House residence with first lady Laura Bush when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, called. Card informed the president that intelligence officials had no information that Saddam had left Iraq.
Earlier, Fleischer spoke of somber realities of war.
"Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life," he said.
Extra security enveloped the executive mansion while aides inside whispered rumors of Iraqi defections and surrenders.
The president began his day with the usual briefing from FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet. He also met throughout the day with his war council, including Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
They reviewed the final details for war in Iraq, aides said, poring over weather forecasts and troop positions.
Bush also discussed battle plans by telephone with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has sent 40,000 British troops to the Persian Gulf.
Bush sent Congress formal notice that he had determined "further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone" would not be enough to contain the "threat posed by Iraq." Bush has contended that Saddam possesses chemical and biological weapons that he could use on his enemies or slip to terrorists.
Bush closed the window to diplomacy Monday when he addressed the nation, but the congressional notification was required under the terms of a resolution passed last year to authorize military action.
The resolution also required Bush to verify that ousting Saddam would not hurt the global war on terrorism. Bush complied with a seven-page report asserting that Iraq supports terrorist networks, including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.
Offering fresh justification for war, the report said one of the spoils of victory may be information about terror cells in the United States.
"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," the report said.
White House officials said the assertion was mostly speculative.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)