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IRAQ: The War's First Days

Author: Sharon Otterman
April 21, 2003

Did the war with Iraq begin as expected?

No. Pentagon officials had said before the war started on March 19 that it would begin with an intense "shock and awe" assault on Iraq by U.S. and coalition forces under cover of darkness. The campaign, they said, would be launched nearly simultaneously from the air, land, and sea, and would seek to stun Iraqi forces into quick submission.

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How did the U.S.-led assault start?

Operation Iraqi Freedom began the night of March 19 (around dawn Baghdad time on March 20) when U.S. and coalition forces, using cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters, struck a target in Baghdad where, intelligence reports indicated, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top deputies had gathered in underground bunkers.

Was Saddam harmed in the attack?

We don't know. News organizations, quoting officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, initially reported that Saddam was wounded and several top Iraqi leaders were killed. Shortly after the attack, Iraqi television broadcast a speech by someone claiming to be Saddam. Some U.S. officials speculated that the speaker may have been a body double (Saddam was reported to have several); U.S. intelligence officials later said they thought it was indeed Saddam, but could not be sure whether the message was taped before the strike.

When did the "shock and awe" assault begin?

Shortly after 8 PM Baghdad time on March 21, cruise missiles and bombers attacked Baghdad and the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. By that point, allied ground troops, which had entered Iraq from Kuwait, were well into their roughly 300-mile journey north toward the capital. In the south, they took control of oil fields west of Basra and the Faw Peninsula, including the port city of Umm Qasr.

Why was the decision made to launch the "shock and awe" campaign?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a March 21 news conference that officials launched the massive assault after the failure of initial efforts to persuade the Iraqi military leadership to concede defeat.

What were the targets?

The air attacks that began March 21 were expected to focus on hundreds of Iraqi military targets, such as command and control centers, including Saddam's palaces, and communications networks throughout the country. Coalition troops also sought to neutralize Iraq's suspected stores of chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery. To minimize post-war reconstruction, the air campaign tried to avoid damage to Iraq's infrastructure, such as bridges and electrical grids. Coalition forces were also expected to spare regular Iraqi army troop formations that signaled a willingness to surrender; that also appears to have occurred.

What were the initial objectives of the war?

The opening strike of the conflict appeared to have been aimed at destroying Iraq's top leadership ahead of a full-scale attack. Another early objective, press reports said, was to neutralize Iraq's air defenses and cripple Baghdad's ability to launch retaliatory strikes. Going into the war, planners were reportedly most concerned that Saddam would unleash chemical or biological weapons from his suspected arsenal on U.S. troops or neighboring states. They were also concerned that he would launch Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia, as he did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and set Iraq's oil fields on fire. By March 21, Iraqi forces had set as many as seven oil fields aflame, but the overall damage caused by such fires was small compared to the devastation caused in Kuwait in 1991.

Another objective, experts said, was to spur widespread surrenders by delivering a series of devastating blows to convince Iraqi defenders that defeat was inevitable. Pentagon officials expected Iraq's roughly 350,000 regular soldiers to mount minimal resistance, but had braced for intense clashes around Baghdad with the 60,000-70,000 members of the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard. While there was heavy fighting at times, intense clashes never fully materialized.

This fact sheet draws on March 2003 interviews with experts at the Council on Foreign Relations. Sources also include Evan Thomas and John Barry, "Saddam's War," Newsweek, Mar. 17, 2003; Mark Thompson, "Opening with a Bang," Time, Mar. 9, 2003; and "How the War Might Be Waged," Time.com, Mar. 17, 2003.

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