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The Theater's Opening Act
    photo The Rasheed Street international telephone exchange was hit.
Desert Storm began Jan. 17, 1991, live on TV. Red tracer fire filled an early morning Baghdad sky. Five bat-winged F-117 stealth fighters converged at 3 a.m. H-Hour (the official military time of the start of the war) on the highest- priority capital targets. Tomahawk cruise missiles arrived from seven ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

Planners designated Baghdad the domain of Air Force jets and Navy missiles. Computer simulations had predicted other weapons would suffer high losses from Iraqi antiaircraft missiles and guns.

The precise "aim points" for individual bombs and missiles were selected painstakingly. Of 487 separate targets on the master list, 144 were earmarked to be bombed in the first 24 hours; 35 were in Baghdad. To air war planners, the capital was the key to incapacitating Saddam Hussein's regime.

The Mahmoon communications facility
in Baghdad.

The Rasheed Street international telephone exchange, dubbed the AT&T Building by U.S. planners, and the Mahmoon communications facility were bombed in the first wave, knocking CNN off the air. When that happened, planners in Riyadh cheered. They had a definitive bomb-damage assessment (BDA) showing that the central communications fabric had been disrupted.

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney stepped to the Pentagon podium three hours later and said, "I think it would be fair to say that the initial reaction from the Iraqis is such that I'm generally of the opinion that we achieved a fairly high degree of tactical surprise."

Despite the vivid reporting from Baghdad on opening night, only 10 bombs and 33 missiles landed in the entire city. To many in the Iraqi leadership, the real surprise was that the United States seemed to be satisfied with only symbolic and modest destruction. This tended to confirm the Iraqi inner circle's feeling that the United States did not have the stomach for casualties and real war, according to extensive interviews in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the "live" bomb damage assessment gave a false impression that it was easy to hit targets and predict effects.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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