A surprising limited strike supplants 'shock and awe'

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WASHINGTON - The war was supposed to start with about 3,000 precision-guided weapons ripping through the night sky over Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. But late yesterday, President Bush was offered targets he couldn't refuse, and everything changed - at least for the moment.

Instead of the widely anticipated massive aerial bombardment, one designed to induce in Iraqi troops and leaders what Pentagon officials have called "shock and awe," the first shots of the second Persian Gulf war were far less destructive and visually impressive.

From all indications, the limited number of munitions launched shortly before dawn today constituted a narrowly conceived surgical strike aimed at "decapitating" the Iraqi leadership.

Such an attack is meant to kill, debilitate or otherwise disorient top civilian leaders and military commanders so they cannot communicate with and direct their troops.

Although it was not clear precisely what the munitions were aimed at, a military official described the mission as directed at "leadership targets" in and around Baghdad, though he declined to offer specifics.

The Associated Press quoted two officials knowledgeable about the operation who said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was among the targets.

The effectiveness of the strike could not be determined immediately, but Hussein appeared on Iraqi television early this morning.

A U.S. military official said about 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from six Navy ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Two radar-evading Air Force F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters dropped 2,000 pound bombs.

"This is not shock and awe," the official said.

The Navy ships were the USS Donald Cook, USS Cowpens, USS Bunker Hill, USS Milius, USS Cheyenne and USS Montpelier.

From Kuwait, Army Maj. Hugh Cate of the 101st Airborne Division said much the same thing: "I don't think that's the big one. It's not 'shock and awe.' Hopefully, they succeeded."

Cate and other soldiers gathered around a television inside a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, watching Bush's address to the nation.

"It was more of a somber mood," Cate said, noting that some of the division's soldiers are still moving into position, ready to strike into Iraq.

He recalled one soldier saying after the address, "Let's get it on. Let's get back to work and put our noses to the grindstone."

U.S. officials have said that the initial bombardment of the war was to be a nocturnal one involving approximately 3,000 precision-guided weapons directed at a wide array of targets.

The attack force was expected to include Tomahawk cruise missiles with 1,000 pound warheads from Navy ships as well as Air Force B-2 stealth bombers from the British base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and the F-117A Nighthawks.

F-117s played a starring role in the first gulf war, when the stealth fighters were the only U.S. warplanes to operate over Baghdad.

Soon after the aerial assault began, if not simultaneously, the main U.S. ground force, along with British troops, was to stream from Kuwait into Iraq and begin the drive toward Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

But the president was informed by senior military advisers late yesterday that a target of opportunity of great value had presented itself and recommended that he approve a mission that meant starting the war sooner than planned and in a different manner.

For the moment, it appears the original plan remains operative and stands to be launched soon, possibly today, the only difference being that its opening salvo will not be the first shots fired in the war.

Harlan Ullman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said he was not surprised that the attacks started around daybreak, adding that he had expected a daylight beginning to hostilities all along.

"Why not? We're invulnerable around the clock," he said. "One would have thought they got some leadership targets or were trying to send a message."

Military officials said that they expect a stepped-up psychological operations campaign to begin today, with television and radio broadcasts into Baghdad.

While there have been limited radio broadcasts, most of the messages to the Iraqi people and troops have been in the form of leaflets dropped during the past several months.

Yesterday, allied aircraft dropped nearly 2 million leaflets across Iraq, urging troops to surrender and warning civilians that Hussein could use chemical weapons. Leaflet drops have become a frequent occurrence over Iraq, but yesterday was the first time that coalition forces had issued specific surrender instructions to Iraqi troops.