Vast air raids trigger assault on Iraq PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN/'The battle is joined'


WASHINGTON -- The military campaign to evict Iraq from Kuwait began, as expected, with air strikes on a huge scale at targets deep in Iraq and Kuwait.

American officials said the onslaught against Iraqi air defenses, communications and weapons sites included the firing of Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles, as well as sorties of F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers, F-15E fighter-bombers and a wide variety of other Air Force and Navy planes.

The American aircraft were accompanied by British and Saudi Tornado fighter-bombers, 150 Saudi F-15s and Kuwait combat planes.

The second wave included French airplanes.

The aim of the nighttime attack was to damage the Iraqi military establishment by destroying command and control centers, including those in Baghdad, and to establish air superiority by knocking out Iraqi air defenses and airfields.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon that "there has been no air resistance" from the Iraqis during the first wave of attacks. But that could change during the daylight sorties.

The number of aircraft involved and the intensity of the assault in the opening hours and days of an air campaign is expected to put it among the largest-scale air attacks in history.

The allied air forces also attacked Scud surface-to-surface missiles, which are considered a threat to the allies' bases and to Israel. And, as President Bush emphasized, American planes struck at Iraqi nuclear and chemical-weapons-production sites. No ground forces were used in the operation, the Pentagon said.

In mounting the air attack, the United States also is trying to make good on its assurances to the Israelis that Washington would blast the threatening Scud missiles to make it unnecessary for Israel to enter the war, the officials said.

The timing of the attack was designed to take advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi air force, which has very limited capability to fight at night, despite its recent efforts to develop some proficiency in night operations.

The new moon was Tuesday, another factor that worked to the advantage of the anti-Iraqi coalition. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney was skimpy with details of the operation, citing security concerns.

Powell said only that hundreds of sorties were conducted and all of the military services were involved in the operation, while Cheney said he thought the United States had generally surprised Iraqi forces.

But both he and Powell indicated that the air attacks had been planned for a long time, indicating that the administration planned to exploit air power to the fullest in an effort to hold down American casualties.

Asked what aircraft was used in the attack, an official replied, "Pretty much everything."

Another official said initial war plans had called for firing more than 100 of the sea-launched cruise missiles to knock out Iraqi air defenses.

The first confirmation of the attack came when Air Force officials in Saudi Arabia announced that a squadron of F-15E fighter-bombers had taken off from an air base in central Saudi Arabia at 4:50 p.m., EST.

The planes were reported to be loaded with bombs as well as extra fuel tanks, which would enable them to make a long flight to Iraq.

The dispatch of the squadron was only a fraction of the air power that can be unleashed against President Saddam Hussein's forces.

The expectation that the United States would unleash air strikes on Iraq built in recent days as the Pentagon maneuvered two aircraft carriers inside the Persian Gulf, the first time that two carriers have ever been in those waters at the same time.

Ever since the American military buildup began in the Persian Gulf, there has been considerable debate about the efficacy of air power, particularly whether American and allied air power can defeat Iraqi ground troops. But the Pentagon is confident that the allied air force is vastly superior to its Iraqi counterpart.

Some members of Congress who were briefed by the U.S. Central Command last year were told that the American military expects to achieve air superiority within 48 hours.

Iraq, however, has been trying to develop ways to counter an allied air assault by dispersing its planes and preparing camouflaged sites for its surface-to-surface Scud missiles, which could be fired at airfields.

Some administration officials say Iraq might try to preserve some of its aircraft by hiding them in concrete shelters and using camouflage and decoys to deceive the Americans.

The planes, and any surface-to-surface missiles that Iraq managed to hide, could then be used to launch surprise attacks later in the war, this line of speculation goes.

U.S. military officials say American casualties are inevitable in an air campaign, with some crew members killed and others captured and held as prisoners.

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