WASHINGTON - The opening salvo of the war, a relatively small cruise missile and bomb attack on several of Saddam Hussein's military lairs around Baghdad, immediately brought hostilities to the Iraqi leader's doorstep and kept him guessing about what might be coming next, officials said.
Some Pentagon officials are terming their strategy "deliberate ambiguity."
Since the U.S.-led coalition has control over the skies in Baghdad, the allied force is now free to search for targets of opportunity, especially those that could keep the Iraqi hierarchy off guard.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday that the strikes against several military leadership facilities in and around Baghdad - spurred by fresh intelligence that Hussein and his top commanders were present - is the kind of martial event that will be seen over the coming days.
"Any war plan reflects the reality that one would take opportunities that present themselves," the defense secretary said. "One has to take account of the realities that you find in the world. And that is what was done [Wednesday] evening. That is what will be done today and tomorrow and the next day. And to not do that would be a terrible mistake."
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed that view at the briefing.
"Having intelligence agencies and armed forces that are flexible is key to victory, and that's what you saw," he said.
Those familiar with the war plan expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to begin with a lethal hailstorm of several thousand precision bombs and missiles, followed by a rapid dash by Army and Marine units into Iraq. Such a barrage may still occur, but military officials made clear that they can also bide their time, using surveillance aircraft, sophisticated intelligence equipment and the world's most-advanced weaponry to dog Iraqi leaders.
Military officials said they would release no information on Wednesday night's lightning attack that sources said included 40 cruise missiles fired by Navy ships and precision bombs from F-117A Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft. There was no official information on the number of missiles and bombs, the number of sites attacked or the number of Iraqi officials thought to be in the cross hairs.
"We do not really want the Iraqis to know how many missiles they got hit with," said a senior military official. "We want to keep them guessing, off-balance."
What the Pentagon decided to broadcast, over both Iraqi and American airwaves, was Rumsfeld's news briefing, which provided little detailed information on the attacks but emphasized several points: Allied forces are preparing to liberate the Iraqi people; civilians should stay inside and clear of advancing troops; and Iraqi officers will face war crimes trials if they use chemical or biological weapons.
U.S. officials say they are stepping up the psychological warfare campaign, with more radio broadcasts and leaflet drops into Iraq.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., former commandant of the Army War College who wrote the service's official history of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, likened the current strategy to a football team employing a no-huddle offense.
"You have to build uncertainty. You don't want to telegraph your intentions, so you have the flexibility and the freedom to operate far afield," he explained. What the military is trying to achieve in Iraq is tactical surprise, he said.
Adding to the speed and tactical surprise, Wednesday night's bombing attack was followed by intensive activity by Special Operations forces throughout Iraq. One Special Operations helicopter - an MH-53 Pave Low - crashed in southern Iraq. The crew was rescued and the helicopter was blown up by U.S. forces to prevent its sophisticated systems from falling into enemy hands, officials said.
While bombs were falling in Baghdad and Special Forces were ranging far and wide, Army and Marine missiles and howitzers started chipping away at Iraqi artillery and troops near Kuwait and allied units began rolling into the country. The U.S. artillery, from multiple-launch rocket systems to 155 mm howitzers, is guided by a sophisticated radar called Q37 that can pinpoint enemy artillery.
With control of the skies, U.S. forces can also achieve tactical surprise and uncertainty among Iraqi leadership with attack aircraft, including Apache Longbow helicopters, which can leapfrog over Iraqi forces, as well as such innovative weapons as bomb-carrying drones
Meanwhile, British troops also are on the move, expected to head toward the city of Basra in southern Iraq. Taking the city - dominated by a Shiite Muslim population hostile to Hussein's regime - would provide an important element to the psychological campaign against the Iraqi leader, officials said, if, as officials hope, the troops are greeted as liberators.