U.S., Allies Launch Massive Air War Against Targets in Iraq and KuwaitBy Rick Atkinson and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 1991; Page A01
The United States and its allies went to war against Iraq last night as hundreds of warplanes unleashed a massive bombing attack on targets in Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
"Tonight the battle has been joined," President Bush said in a brief, nationally televised address. "The United States, together with the United Nations, exhausted every means at our disposal to bring this crisis to a peaceful end." Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Bush added, "met every overture of peace with open contempt."
U.S. officials expressed surprise and relief at the lack of any effective Iraqi military response in the early hours of hostilities. Despite U.S. anxieties that Israel would be drawn into the war by an Iraqi strike, Baghdad launched no attack on the Jewish state, officials said.
Wave after wave of warplanes flown by U.S., British, Saudi and Kuwaiti pilots attacked Baghdad and other targets in Iraq and Kuwait, reportedly hitting oil refineries, the Baghdad international airport and Saddam's palace.
In a broadcast on state-run Baghdad radio five hours after the war began, a voice identified as Saddam's responded defiantly, calling Bush a "hypocritical criminal" and vowing to crush "the satanic intentions of the White House." Declaring that "the great duel, the mother of all battles has begun," the speaker said, "the dawn of victory nears as this great showdown begins."
At about the same time, Thomas Pickering, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council that "Iraq can still avoid further destruction by unconditional, immediate and complete withdrawal from Kuwait."
In Baghdad, witnesses reported that the moonless night sky was thick with tracer fire from antiaircraft guns and that a smoky pallor had settled over the city. Western correspondents reported power blackouts in much of the city, although not until nearly an hour after the raids began.
A second wave of air attacks pounded targets in Baghdad and elsewhere in daylight this morning after a 5 1/2-hour break, a Western military officer said in Bahrain.
In a briefing at the Pentagon less than three hours after the war began, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said initial reports from the gulf were "very, very encouraging. The operation appears to have gone very well. . . . We achieved a fairly high degree of tactical surprise." The combat, Cheney added, is "likely to run a long period of time." Casualty reports were sketchy, but officials said that few if any allied planes had been lost in the raids.
A pilot interviewed by the television news pool supervised by the Pentagon reported spotting considerable ground fire as he flew his initial mission over Iraq, but only a single surface-to-air missile. He said his group of 12 jets all returned safely from its raid.
The first targets hit, according to U.S. military sources in Saudi Arabia, were ground-to-ground Scud missiles capable of striking Saudi or Israeli cities. About 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- low-flying drones fired from U.S. warships -- were used in the initial attack, along with F-117 stealth fighters, according to Pentagon sources.
Bush said that the attacks also were intended to destroy Iraq's nuclear weapons potential and chemical weapons stocks, as well as damaging Saddam's tank force. "We will not fail," the president added.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to provide many specifics but said that "so far there has been no resistance" from the Iraqi air force. U.S. fighters returned from their missions with air-to-air missiles still slung beneath their wings, having found no enemy planes to engage in dogfights.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater added, "We don't quite understand it. We are surprised that there was so little response this first night. But we are keeping in mind that this is only the beginning, and a guy with a million-man army is bound to respond."
The order to launch attacks marked the end of 5 1/2 months of diplomatic and economic efforts by the United Nations to force Saddam to roll back the forces he sent into oil-rich Kuwait on Aug. 2. It came less than 17 hours after the expiration Tuesday midnight of the United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
An overnight Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed three of four persons interviewed approved of Bush's action. But several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the White House before midnight, shouting, "Shame, shame, shame." More than a dozen were arrested amid rock and bottle throwing.
"The world could wait no longer," Bush said. Congress, which had agonized for months over backing Bush's hard-line stance, appeared substantially united behind the president's decision in the first few hours of the war. Republicans rallied quickly to his support, and so did some of his prominent Democratic critics.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a leader of the forces arguing that the economic embargo against Iraq should be sustained much longer before resort to arms, said last night, "I believe we will prevail in days or weeks. Saddam Hussein has made a tragic miscalculation."
Senate intelligence committee Chairman David L. Boren (D-Okla.), who shared Nunn's view, said there would be "unanimous support for our troops. . . . You'll see Congress play the role of supporting player."
It was not quite unanimous. Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) said Bush's decision brought "an inestimable tragedy, for which it will take us a lifetime to atone."
Crude oil prices initially soared while stock prices fell in Tokyo, but as news reports indicated an allied success, the mood on markets around the world became positive. Oil prices retreated and the Japanese stock market surged upward. Late last night, the White House announced that the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve will be tapped, further reassuring the oil market.
Although there was no report of any major retaliatory action by Iraq, airline security was heightened around the world and in the nation's capital in response to earlier threats of Iraqi terrorism. FBI Director William S. Sessions said that some terrorists "have been identified as being in the United States," but that there have not yet been any incidents.
Although Cheney later said no Iraqi attacks had been launched against Saudi Arabia, Western diplomats and a Saudi official said one oil storage facility had suffered minor damage in a bombardment.
The allied attack, code named Operation Desert Storm, included extensive participation by 45 British Tornado jets flying out of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and 150 Saudi attack fighters, according to British and Saudi sources.
U.S. military officials said the air war against Iraq could last for three to four weeks before ground forces swing into action, although Bush may order brief pauses in the bombing to give Saddam an opportunity to sue for peace. The first phase of the air war targets Iraqi air defenses, command and control centers and Iraqi Scud missiles; U.S. military officials in Saudi Arabia said they believe many of the initial targets, including the Scuds, had been obliterated. There was no indication that Israel had been hit or that Israeli forces were involved in the war.
Israeli Air Force Col. Menachem Eynan told a radio reporter two hours after the air strikes began that "We're completely out of the picture. We're not involved, and we're not acting."
One objective of the attack last night and in the coming days, Pentagon sources said, is to sever Iraqi forces in Kuwait from central government and military control in Baghdad. Subsequent phases of the air war will seek to isolate those forces logistically -- by demolishing roads, railroads and supply lines -- and then begin destroying the forces themselves.
An unconfirmed report from a Kuwaiti resistance source inside Kuwait said that allied troops speaking English had been seen in a suburb of Kuwait City; some Kuwaiti citizens, the source added, took to the streets, honking their car horns, while some Iraqi soldiers tried to surrender.
A military spokesman in central Saudi Arabia said the first squadron of F-15E fighter bombers took off at 4:50 p.m. EST (12:50 a.m. Thursday in Saudi Arabia). Col. Roy Davies, chief maintenance officer at the base, said, "This is history in the making." Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the gulf, issued a statement to his troops urging them to be "the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm."
The first official notification of the attack came from grim-looking White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who appeared in the White House briefing room just after 7 p.m.
Reading a statement from Bush, he said, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun. In conjunction with the forces of our coalition partners, the United States has moved under the code name Operation Desert Storm to enforce the mandates of the United Nations Security Council. As of 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Operation Desert Storm forces were engaging targets in Kuwait and Iraq."
Fitzwater said the attack is "designed to accomplish the goal of the U.N. Security Council resolution to get Iraq unconditionally out of Kuwait. I think the president's description of it a few days ago, that it would be swift and massive, would certainly apply."
Bush was in the small study off the Oval Office watching television reports from Baghdad as the attack began. With him were Vice President Quayle, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. Fitzwater was in and out of the office during that period.
As the sound of the bombing came over the television, Bush turned to his aides and said, "It's just the way it was scheduled," Fitzwater reported. He described the president as "very matter-of-fact and calm" as he watched the live reports from Baghdad.
Moments later he said to Fitzwater, "Marlin, you'd better go do it," the signal for the spokesman to give the official announcement.
Fitzwater said the decision was made over a period of weeks, with key meetings on several recent Sunday nights after the president returned from Camp David. A final planning meeting came Tuesday morning at the White House. But the decision had been implicit from the start.
From the day of Iraq's invasion, Bush had made it plain that he thought the stakes in the gulf were big enough to justify a war. He persuaded 28 nations to send forces to the gulf and mobilized support from past adversaries, including the Soviet Union, for an embargo that largely isolated Iraq from world commerce.
With the backing of an unprecedented range of countries, the United Nations Security Council passed 12 separate and increasingly severe resolutions demanding that Iraq roll back its lightning conquest of the tiny desert kingdom and its rich oil reserves. Last Saturday, Bush obtained what amounted to a congressional declaration of war, when the Senate narrowly and the House by a wider margin approved a resolution endorsing the use of "all necessary means" for expelling Iraq -- the same formulation the United Nations had used in its last ultimatum to Saddam.
Although the United States had "tilted" to Iraq's side in the Iran-Iraq war and had sent diplomatic signals early last summer that it had no inclination to intervene in the long-simmering Iraqi territorial dispute with Kuwait, Bush insisted from the beginning that Saddam's military conquest of Kuwait "will not stand."
He never wavered from that view in the five months that led up to the most important decision of his presidency, and as H-Hour approached he seemed almost relieved that the waiting was over.
His only appearance during the day came at the beginning of a meeting with educators. When asked about his mood, he said, "Life goes on." When reporters commented that he looked grim, his response was to tell them to "lighten up."
Fitzwater described him early in the day as having "steeled himself" for the events ahead and as being "calm and confident" that he had taken the right course.
Reading from a prepared statement at that morning briefing, Fitzwater said, "The president has gone beyond the extra mile for peace. Saddam Hussein has yet to take the first step."
By early afternoon, the signs of an imminent military attack, familiar from the Panama invasion a year ago, began emerging in rumor form on Capitol Hill. Unusual signs of activity were observed in the offices of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine).
Between 5 and 6 p.m., congressional leaders began getting calls from Bush and other administration officials, informing them that hostilities were underway. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) recalled telling the president, "My Bible tells me that Our Heavenly Father . . . will reward us. I pray for you every night."
By 6:35 p.m., the leaders had received the written certification, required by the congressional resolution, saying that all diplomatic efforts had failed. As in his televised speech, Bush's letter put the blame for war on Iraq, which he said "has given no sign whatever that it intends to comply with the will of the international community. Nor is there any indication that diplomatic and economic means alone would ever compel Iraq to do so."
In addressing the nation from the Oval Office, Bush said that "while the world waited, Saddam Hussein systematically raped, pillaged and plundered a tiny nation -- no threat to his own. . . . While the world waited, Saddam sought to add to the chemical weapons arsenal he now possesses, an infinitely more dangerous weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear weapon."
Bush reiterated essentially the same case for military action that he has made since his Nov. 8 decision to double the size of U.S. forces in the gulf in order to provide offensive punch.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who logged thousands of miles in assembling the anti-Iraq coalition and futilely seeking a diplomatic solution, spent yesterday notifying allies of the decision to go to war.
Baker called Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan at 8 a.m. to tell him of Bush's decision to begin the attack. Bandar then telephoned King Fahd in Saudi Arabia and notified him through use of a secret, pre-arranged code word, according to a source close to the Saudi government. The king then assented to the attack with another code word.
The secretary telephoned the new Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, in Moscow. He spoke in person to the ambassadors of Israel, Kuwait, West Germany, Syria and Japan to give them notification in most cases in advance of the beginning of the attacks. State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler refused to disclose the precise time or order of the notification.
The FBI refused to comment on reports that its agents were preparing in the event of hostilities to conduct searches of locations where suspected terrorists might be hiding and perhaps make some arrests.
Domestic airlines and airports were ordered at about 8 p.m. to go to a heightened state of security, according to government sources, although "no specific credible threat of terrorism has been received against any airline.
The government imposed what it called "preplanned security level 3", one step below the most stringent security requirements. Under level 3, more uniformed police are moved into airports and a stricter "profile" is applied to passengers in determining who to question and search.