Baghdad hit as West launches air strikes on defiant Saddam

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN AND the United States launched air strikes against Iraq last night as the long-running confrontation over United Nations weapons inspections finally spilt over into war.

Operation Desert Fox will continue for two to three days, aimed at smashing Saddam Hussein's military infrastructure and weakening his hold on power, London and Washington said in closely co-ordinated statements last night after a day of high drama.

The sudden shift to conflict stirred deep anger among President Bill Clinton's congressional opponents, coming on the eve of what had been set to be the first impeachment debate in the Congress in over a century. The debate was almost certain to be postponed, leaving the impeachment process hanging in the air.

Tension had been rising since the UN's chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, said on Tuesday night that Iraq was still not co-operating with his team. Hours later, the US advised the UN to pull its teams out of Iraq, and by dawn they were leaving for Bahrain.

Speculation built through the day, then shortly after midnight Iraq time (9pm GMT), the air-raid sirens sounded. Fifty minutes later, the sky was illuminated by anti-aircraft fire and the city was rocked by ferocious explosions. It was reported in Baghdad that one of President Saddam's palaces was hit by cruise missiles.

The US immediately announced that Mr Clinton had given approval for air strikes, and minutes later Tony Blair stepped out into Downing Street to announce the operation had begun.

President Clinton made a televised address to the country last night to explain the reasons for a "strong, sustained" campaign of air strikes.

"Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbours with nuclear weapons, poison gas or biological weapons," he said. The strikes had to be launched quickly, both to maintain the element of surprise and because the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was approaching at the weekend. The regime in Baghdad constituted a "clear and present danger", he added, using rhetoric last heard during the Cold War.

Last night's strike was thought to have principally employed US Navy cruise missiles and US Navy bombers. It was launched against targets all across the country in retaliation for Baghdad's refusal to allow weapons inspectors full access to sites where Iraq is believed to be hiding material related to weapons of mass destruction.

"The President decided to take this action this morning after reviewing the conclusions of the report to the UN Secretary-General and Security Council by Unscom chairman Butler," said the White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

The Pentagon said the attacks were set to continue through the night as the first part of a campaign aimed at dismantling Iraq's military infrastructure and weakening President Saddam's grip on power. The first attacks are likely to have been targeted at air defence and command and control sites, to ease the way for further strikes aimed not only at suspected weapons sites but also at the political props of the regime - the secret services, intelligence service and in particular the Republican Guard.

The US has over 200 aircraft in the Gulf, a fleet of ships that are capable of launching Tomahawk Cruise missiles and 15 B-52 bombers on the British island of Diego Garcia armed with cruise missiles. The US Navy alone has 300 such missiles in the region. Britain has 15 Tornado aircraft and a Type 22 Frigate, HMS Boxer.

The force had been assembled for last month's abortive strike, which was called off at the last minute. The US warned at the time that air strikes could result in thousands of Iraqi casualties. "There will be unintended civilian casualties," said the President. "We must be prepared for these realities."

President Saddam had put Iraq on a war footing yesterday, dividing the country into four zones under military commanders. "We call on you Iraqis, women and men, relying on God to throw out their dreams and their failed visions, and prove ... that they will fail as they have failed during the Mother of Battles," said a statement issued after a meeting of the Baath party and the Revolutionary Command Council.

The decision to strike as the President approached his point of maximum jeopardy in the impeachment process enraged some senior Republicans.

"I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time," stormed Trent Lott, the Republican leader in the Senate. "Both the timing and the policy are subject to question."

The House of Representatives had been due to begin its debate on four articles of impeachment today, but the Administration denied strenuously that the the clash had any connection with the President's problems. The timing had been set by Mr Butler's report, and by Iraq itself, spokesmen said. Indeed, they raised the prospect that President Saddam may have timed the confrontation to coincide with Mr Clinton's maximum weakness.

The rapid US shift towards the military option also roused strong criticism from abroad. A stormy session of the United Nations Security Council was under way last night as other powers mounted a strong but unsuccessful effort to dissuade America from air strikes.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, attacked the US for pushing the military option, and said he had contacted US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright to argue against it. "The use of force can only worsen the situation in the Gulf and the Middle East," he said. "Russia doesn't want that.

France was also reluctant for the Americans to take military action. "Concerning Mr Butler's report, its content and the question it raises must be given in-depth study by the Security Council," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The US yesterday issued warnings to countries in the region that military action was under way. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel, and the Israeli Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, said last night: "We are following [the situation] very closely. Preparations for our forces have been carried out and we will decide on additional steps."

Shortly after Mr Blair's Downing Street announcement, a group of about 30 protesters from the Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun gathered outside the gates in Whitehall condemning the air strikes and chanting: "Kill Tony Blair".

In another development last night, Britain's largest holiday company, Thomson, announced that it will today evacuate over 700 British holidaymakers from the Israeli resort of Eilat.

How A Night Of Drama And Air Strikes Unfolded 21.23: Air-raid sirens sound in Baghdad for about 30 seconds, at around 00.20 local time.

21.27: President Saddam Hussein puts Iraq on a war footing and urges his people to defy the West's attempt to make them "kneel".

21.29: MPs are told that although the House was due to adjourn today for its Christmas recess, members could expect a recall if bombing began.

21.35: The Government said that there would be an emergency debate on Iraq in the Commons today.

21.37: President Bill Clinton's opponents hint at a "Wag the Dog" scenario, with strikes aimed at taking attention away from the impeachment crisis. In the film satire, a president concocts a war to divert attention from an affair.

21.41: President Clinton notifies Congress that he has decided on strikes against Iraq.

21.49 (00.49 in Baghdad) Anti-aircraft explosions are heard over Baghdad.

22.00 A second, 30-second round of anti-aircraft fire is heard. The explosions shake the windows of the information ministry near the centre of Baghdad, where foreign reporters are based.

22.03: The White House confirms that a "substantial" attack had been launched.

22:18 Tony Blair says he had authorised British participation in an attack minutes before, co-ordinated with the US. "Operation Desert Fox was launched at 10pm (20.00 GMT) London time," he said in Downing Street. "British involvement will be significant."

23.00: Mr Clinton said he ordered strikes ahead of Ramadan which begins this weekend for continued defiance of weapons inspectors "to protect the national interest of the United States" and Iraq's neighbours.

23.29 A third round of anti-aircraft blasts hits Baghdad. At least one incoming blast is heard.

00.15 Witnesses report at least two missiles fell on Baghdad, one near President Saddam's biggest palace in the capital. The Pentagon says attacks are set to continue through the night.