In what a Bush administration official described as 'a spanking for Saddam, not a real beating', 114 aircraft, including four British Tornados carrying 1,000lb (450kg) laser-guided bombs, knocked out four fixed anti-aircraft missile emplacements and several mobile anti-aircraft missile sites in the southern Iraq no-fly zone.
At least 35 aircraft took off from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, in the northern waters of the Gulf, carrying 2,000lb laser-guided bombs and Harm missiles, which home in on enemy radars. Also in the area are several other US warships and one submarine.
Malcolm Rifkind, the British Secretary of State for Defence, said: 'Early indications are that serious damage was inflicted, and assessment of results is continuing. No losses were sustained by coalition forces.'
Three Iraqi civilians and one soldier were killed, and seven people were wounded by the strikes, according to Iraq's news agency Ina. The civilians died in a residential area in the province of Basra, it said.
Unconfirmed reports spoke later of further attacks against biological warfare centres.
The operation, in which some French Mirages also took part, was launched at 6.15pm GMT. Though news of the mission leaked quickly, the White House waited several hours before offering confirmation. All the allied aircraft returned to base safely, officials said.
After the mission, President George Bush said he hoped it would get the message across to President Saddam that no further transgression of UN resolutions would be tolerated. He said the imminence of his handover of power to Bill Clinton had no effect on his judgement. 'I'm President until 20 January and I will run foreign policy, make these kinds of decisions while I'm President. You have to do what you have to do,' Mr Bush said.
Mr Clinton has voiced total support for Mr Bush, and received a telephone call from Mr Bush yesterday shortly before the attack.
Mr Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, noted that the allies would continue to scrutinise activity in the area, and would strike again without warning if Baghdad persisted in challenging UN authority and continued to ignore the ultimatum delivered a week ago by the US, Britain, France and Russia, giving it 48 hours to remove the missile systems from the no-fly zone.
'Continued defiance of UN resolutions and related declarations will not be tolerated. We stand ready to take additional forceful action with our coalition
Mr Fitzwater said the mission goal was to 'restore an environment that poses no threat to allied aircraft', responsible for patrolling the no-fly area imposed by the allies last August to protect Shia Muslims from aerial attack by Baghdad.
In a further signal of allied concern over recent Iraqi belligerence, Mr Fitzwater also revealed that the US will deploy an additional battalion of ground forces inside Kuwait, in case of any further escalation of the conflict. Earlier yesterday, a Baghdad newspaper quoted government officials as saying Iraq still intended to retake Kuwait, from which it was ejected in the Gulf war.
John Major said yesterday's action, which had been both 'limited and proportionate' had not been taken lightly, and the Iraqis had been given 'ample warning'. The Prime Minister said: 'We believe it will be effective in establishing the conditions which will enable our aircraft to operate in the no-fly zone with safety.'
John Smith, the Labour leader, and Paddy Ashdown, for the Liberal Democrats, both backed the allied attack, Mr Smith saying: 'I hope Saddam Hussein clearly understands he cannot continue to flout international opinion and the resolutions of the Security Council.'
President Saddam gave a characteristically defiant speech on Iraqi television last night, denouncing the evil of the US forces who had come back to attack. 'The criminals have come back,' he said, insisting the US would be defeated. 'Another battle has started. Another jihad (holy struggle) ordained by God.
'So we will achieve a great victory for you. We will inflict a great humiliation on the infidels, oh men of the mother of all battles.'
Yet even as the military mission got under way, Iraq appeared to acquiesce in some UN demands. Iraq's envoy in New York delivered a letter to the Security Council pledging to end four days of raids into Kuwait and to lift a ban on UN flights into the country.
Street lights remained on in the Iraqi capital, and Iraqi state television made no immediate reference to the attack.
Yesterday's attack was the first military intervention by the allies - apart from the downing of an Iraqi jet in the southern zone three weeks ago - since the end of the Gulf war in February 1991.
It was first planned for Tuesday evening, but was aborted at the last moment because of bad weather in the target area. At least two aircraft from the Kitty Hawk actually took off for the mission before it was abandoned, and were ordered back to the ship.
It had become clear in recent days that the unrelenting sequence of challenges by President Saddam to UN and US authority was making some military retaliation inevitable. Without it, any further verbal reprimands against Baghdad from New York and Washington would have had little credibility.
Diplomats noted however that the subtext to the operation was the continuing desire, in Washington especially, to loosen President Saddam's grip on power.
'The only strategy at this time is to bring home to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi leadership that life will not be
come normal again until Saddam goes on his way', one senior Western source
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