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In a Flash, the Script Changes

March 20, 2003|Doyle McManus and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — It was an incongruous way to start a war: a single airstrike at dawn, a terse four-minute statement from President Bush -- and then a strange silence.

But military planners have been saying for months that this war will not resemble any other recent conflict, including its predecessor, the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They have already been proved right.

Instead of the "shock and awe" that U.S. generals had promised, the first assault against Baghdad was a quick precision airstrike aimed at eliminating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or other members of his leadership. Instead of a hail of fire, the first television pictures from Baghdad revealed a largely quiet sunrise and empty gray skies.

In his statement from the White House, Bush offered no clarion call for the liberation of Iraq, no Churchillian phrases, but rather 30 understated sentences announcing "the early stages of military operations."

Officials said the raid on Baghdad occurred because a "target of opportunity" had appeared; this was not the main event, merely one more preliminary bout. In fact, U.S. and British aircraft that patrol "no-fly" zones over Iraq have been striking air defenses for weeks.

On Wednesday, in another escalation, they struck for the first time at Iraqi ground artillery across the border from the main allied ground force in Kuwait.

But the British and American land forces remained poised in the desert, still waiting for the order to advance.

"This was not the way the air war was supposed to begin," said Michele Fluornoy, a former senior Pentagon advisor now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

"Every military analyst has been saying they're going to wait for the cover of night ... and they'll come in massively. This was none of those things."

The impromptu strikes against a residence outside Baghdad indicated a hope by U.S. strategists that they could bring the war to a quick end by killing Hussein. They also reflected the lessons of the recent war in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces may have missed a chance to strike at Osama bin Laden because they acted too slowly on reports of his whereabouts.

"They didn't want to repeat that again," said Loren B. Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "What this strike shows is that they're willing to bend the plan to go after Saddam."

Acting on Intelligence

The reason for the change in tactics was apparently what defense officials call "actionable intelligence" -- a reliable report on the immediate whereabouts of a high-ranking Iraqi target.

"What it's demonstrating is that the quality of our intelligence in Iraq has increased enormously," Fluornoy said. "What we may be seeing is some [Iraqi] people deciding that they want to be on the winning side, and they want to try to avert the war, so they're talking."

The air and ground campaign in Iraq will include other unexpected elements designed to terrify and disrupt the Iraqi regime, defense officials said. One may be daylight airstrikes, which officials said can be performed safely because precision bombs can be dropped by aircraft flying high out of range of antiaircraft batteries.

"They're going to do things differently," said Eliot A. Cohen, a defense analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "The American military, when you get down to it, can be creative."

Col. Gary Crowder, a senior Air Force commander, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that plans call for unleashing 3,000 munitions in the first two days of the campaign, 10 times the number of bombs and missiles used in the opening days of the 1991 war.

"I do not think our adversary has any idea what's coming," Crowder said.

What's more, the vast majority of the munitions to be used in the coming war are precision-guided; only 10% were in 1991.

Much of that aerial onslaught will be aimed at communications, transportation, air defense and military targets. Crowder said the precision weapons will enable U.S. forces to disable Iraqi military and communications systems with fewer airstrikes and less damage to surrounding structures.

"The point here is we don't have to attack everything, nor do we have to destroy everything," Crowder said.

"Baghdad will not look like Dresden," he said, referring to devastation wrought by the carpet bombing of the German city in World War II.

In his Oval Office remarks, Bush took pains to warn that victory may not be easy or swift. "A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict," he said.

Warnings Given

And he warned the public, almost for the first time, that even a successful war will likely result in a long and thorny American effort to build a new Iraq.

Military experts note, moreover, that Hussein may have laid plans for retaliation and counterattack that could produce unpleasant surprises.

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