In an age of instant television pictures, Americans learned last night from the muffled sound of gunfire, broadcast radio-style over unchanging screens, that the war against Iraq had begun.

At 6:35 p.m. EST, Cable News Network reporters John Holliman and Peter Arnett provided a running commentary on the explosive sounds they were hearing, but could not see, from their ninth-floor room at the Al-Rashid Hotel in downtown Baghdad.

In those first uncertain moments, as people around the world gathered in front of television sets, there were only verbal accounts, as if Edward R. Murrow were vividly describing World War II bombing raids by radio from London.

ABC News had aired a phone report from correspondent Gary Shepard a moment earlier, but lost the connection 25 minutes later. For all their modern technology, the networks were limited to flashing photos of their correspondents against a map of Baghdad.

At first, the magnitude of the events remained unclear. Was it war or a false alarm?

"There's a response here as if the city were under attack," Holliman said, "the night sky filled with a hail of bullets from antiaircraft guns, and off in the distance you can hear what appears to be bombs of some kind hitting the ground. . . . You can feel the building, which is a very well-built hotel, shaking underneath us as the attack apparently continues."

There was a lull. Holliman spoke of an "eerie silence." Then, just before 7 p.m.: "Much of the city has been blacked out. It looks like a Fourth of July display at the Washington Monument. The sky is brightly lit."

A moment later: "Holy cow!"

"If you're still with us," Arnett said, "you're going to hear the bombs now hitting the center of this city." Explosions far louder than the previous gunfire seemed to roar from the telephone hookup.

At one point, anchor Bernard Shaw, who had joined his colleagues in the hotel room, raised a previously unspoken question about their journalistic coup.

"Has it occurred to you that it is not accidental that we are still reporting to the world?" he asked his colleagues. The Iraqi government, he said, "wants word put out."

But the message was conveyed in halting, almost crude fashion. At one point, Holliman said, "We'll open the window and let you hear some of the sounds if there are any. . . . "

After briefly losing audio contact with CNN in Atlanta, Arnett, a former Vietnam War correspondent, said, "The bombing has intensified now and the explosions are coming closer to this part of town."

"Oop! Now there's something on fire," Holliman said.

"While we can't see activity, we can hear the bombs landing," Arnett said.

On ABC News, meanwhile, correspondent Shepard reported that Radio Baghdad had been knocked off the air, but his connection was broken at 7:01 p.m. NBC News' live report from correspondent Tom Aspell was also cut off. CBS News never got its Baghdad reporter on the air.

With the others gone, Ted Turner's 24-hour news network, born only a decade ago, had the war in the Persian Gulf all to itself.

The official confirmation of what CNN's viewers had been hearing for nearly half an hour came at 7:07 p.m., when White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, "The liberation of Kuwait has begun."

From the Pentagon to Jordanian officials in Amman to Japanese traders in Tokyo, policy-makers and moneymakers were tuned to CNN for news of the air war. The Tokyo markets were buoyed by the apparently successful strikes. "A key thing was a story from CNN," a Merrill Lynch trader in Tokyo said.

Next on CNN came word of a radio pool report from Saudi Arabia that U.S. F-15 warplanes had taken off from that country. CBS anchor Dan Rather remained tentative in his assessments. "It is believed that U.S. fighter bombers are attacking Iraq," he told viewers.

The Big Three networks lost contact with their Baghdad reporters for a simple reason: They were relying on the hotel phone lines, which went dead. CNN had a secure, two-way international line, obtained in an agreement with Iraqi television, that required no switchboard. Spokesman Steve Haworth credited "months of hard work and planning by CNN people."

Reports from Holliman, Arnett and Shaw soon took on a joshing tone, as if to minimize the danger that they -- and the city -- were facing. "We are sweating in more ways than one," Shaw said. "You know, it occurs to me I didn't get dinner tonight."

Most newspaper reporters, including those for The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, were ordered by editors to leave Baghdad in the last two days because of concern for their safety.

One print reporter who stayed behind was Don Kirk, a USA Today stringer, who filed a story from the U.S. Embassy about 7 p.m., hopped in a taxi, surveyed the city, was briefly herded into the bomb shelter at the Al-Rashid Hotel, then made his way to Shaw's room for a CNN interview. Kirk's editors in Arlington were startled to see him on television.

As the evening wore on, CNN offered more of the same: the sound of bombing, another lull, then more bombing, with the reporters pausing so that viewers could hear for themselves the sounds of war.

"It feels like we're in the center of hell," Shaw said at 8:20 p.m.

At 8:33 p.m., CNN had lost phone contact with Baghdad. It was restored minutes later. The correspondents explained that they had been trying to avoid hotel security agents.

"For about 20 minutes, I've been hiding under a table," Shaw said.

Off the air, meanwhile, CNN officials called the other networks to say that their correspondents were safe in a bomb shelter and to offer a phone interview with the CNN reporters. At 9:42, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney was asked at a news conference about Iraqi casualties. He said that he believed the bombing raids were successfully targeted because he had heard that on CNN.

A minute later, CNN's night of triumph was complete, as NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Shaw and his two colleagues from Baghdad. Brokaw asked how CNN had managed to stay on the air. There was a long pause.

"I'm just trying to decide whether to answer your question," Shaw said. "The next time we meet, I'll tell you."