Washington, March 20: The second war in the 21st century began the way wars are expected to begin in this age of high technology and 24-hour cable news.
Americans found out that their country was at war for the second time in little more than a year not from their President, not from any official, but from TV anchors and correspondents.
At 9.32 pm Washington time, one-and-a-half hours and two minutes after Saddam Hussein refused to heed a US deadline for his exile, NBC’s Tom Brokaw reported hearing explosions in Baghdad.
Four minutes later, Nic Robertson of CNN, the only US network with a team of correspondents in Iraq, was on telephone reporting anti-aircraft fire and tracer bullets lighting up the sky of the Iraqi capital at dawn. Other networks began reporting the first US raid in the war almost immediately thereafter. More than half-an-hour would pass before President George W. Bush confirmed to his people that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” had, indeed, begun.
But for journalists here awaiting the crucial hour of an attack on Baghdad, there were tell-tale signs that it was going to happen last night. CIA director George Tenet interrupted the President’s quiet dinner with the First Lady to tell him that his agency had information that Saddam Hussein was still in Baghdad.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters shortly after that phone call that they should be “flexible”. It was taken to mean that Bush would address the nation later in the night.
For reporters who had spent a long day at the White House, there were indications as early as 4 pm yesterday that action should be expected. Around that time, the principals in the war effort started filing back into the White House. They had left the President’s office only a few hours earlier after a long meeting which began very early in the morning.
When the Bush war council reassembled, they were briefed by Tenet that the CIA knew where Saddam Hussein was and would remain possibly for the rest of the night. For two- and-a-half hours Vice-President Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen. Richard Myers, secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House chief of staff Andrew Card debated the wisdom of launching an attack with Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-117 stealth bombers capable of evading radars.
Bush faced a difficult choice. Powell and Cheney who were in the thick of the Gulf war in 1991 recalled the mistaken attack on an air raid shelter for Baghdad civilians then based on mistaken intelligence that Saddam Hussein was hiding in the shelter.
The raid that caused massive civilian casualties was to haunt the US for many years since. Rumsfeld and Rice spoke with regret about how Osama bin Laden had saved himself from a US air attack in Afghanistan by just three hours. The most wanted man in the world left a safe house at 5 am and US planes attacked the target at 8 am.
What if it happened again because the US waited too long and missed a chance to turn the tide of this war even before its launch by killing Saddam Hussein' At 6.30 pm, according to White House sources, Bush authorised the first strikes against Iraq.
But the decision interrupted earlier plans for a devastating and sustained attack 24 to 48 hours later and British troops in the Gulf had to find out from TV that the war they had gone to fight had actually started. American reporters “embedded” with US troops in various locations in the Gulf also reported that many senior officers were taken by surprise by the early morning hit on Baghdad. That the first attack on Baghdad was a surgical operation in the hope of taking out Saddam Hussein and not part of any wave became clear when Bush retired to bed at 10.30 pm as usual, a few minutes after his address to the nation.
All his key aides left the White House. A local reporter who phoned a senior Pentagon official was told: “I would not be sitting in my kitchen eating a bowl of cereal if anything more was to happen tonight”. But it was certain to be a night of calm before the coming storm.