22 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

The smoke rose above Baghdad in plumes of thick, black soot, carrying with it the ashes of a dying regime. The nights were full of fire and noise, as thousands of Tomahawk missiles and smart bombs crashed into their targets, sending up balloons of searing orange flame into the night sky. In the light of day, calm descended on the city’s streets, and the silence was pierced only by the crackle of burning buildings and the wail of emergency sirens. Iraqi officials angrily prevented reporters from venturing near the scenes of destruction, but word spread quickly among the hardened citizens of the city what exactly had been destroyed. Three days into the American war on Saddam Hussein, the soaring government buildings and opulent palaces that once stood on the banks of the Tigris River were gone. Even if Saddam and his most trusted aides somehow managed to survive a bombing campaign expressly designed to kill them, their tyranny appeared ready to crumble with the foundations of their fortresses. It seemed to be only a matter of time.

But wars move according to their own tempo; war plans, military men often say, are made to bebroken, good only until the first bombs are dropped and the real fighting begins. At the White House and inside the allied war rooms, the mood swung from hopeful expectation, with signs that the Iraqi regime may have been decapitated, to admonishing sobriety on Saturday, as U.S. soldiers encountered significant enemy fire outside southern Iraqi cities and on the road to Baghdad. “There’s no cheering or high-fiving whatsoever,” said a senior White House aide. “This is not a cakewalk.” By the end of last week, Pentagon officials said they were pleased with the pace of the campaign, as U.S. forces pushed more than 150 miles into Iraq, but there was also plenty of anxiety about the hazards that might still lie in wait — perhaps only days away — as the steel wave of allied power pushed toward the gates of the capital. “Things are going pretty well,” a senior Pentagon official says. “Perhaps too well.”

The opening act of Gulf War II did not proceed according to the Pentagon’s carefully scripted blueprint — to begin the attack with a rapid push of ground troops, followed by a massive air assault designed to “shock and awe” the enemy into submission. That plan was pre-empted because of an intelligence bonanza that could have delivered the knockout punch before the opening bell. Acting on fresh information that came in hours before the deadline the U.S. President had set for Saddam to give up power, George W. Bush ordered U.S. forces to strike the Baghdad bunker where Saddam was believed to be sleeping. Just before dawn Thursday, three dozen Tomahawk missiles outfitted with 1,000-lb. warheads were unleashed from six warships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and slammed into three buildings in Baghdad. “The intelligence indicated there would be senior Iraqi leadership at all three,” a Pentagon official said, “but one target was more important than the other two.” Shortly after the missiles found their marks, a pair of U.S. F117 fighters dropped four 2,000-lb. bunker-busting bombs on an underground facility believed to be housing Saddam and at least one of his two ruthless sons Qusay and Uday.

U.S. military officials told TIME that the barrage obliterated its intended targets and almost certainly killed some if not many of the key Iraqi leaders believed to be huddling inside. A senior U.S. official told TIME that the CIA received an intelligence report that one of Saddam’s sons was either killed or seriously injured; a second intelligence report cited sources who saw Saddam carried out of the rubble on a stretcher. In the wake of the U.S. strike, Iraqi television broadcast what it claimed was a live statement from Saddam that purported to show he had survived. Some viewers wondered whether the haggard, bespectacled figure was actually the dictator or one of his body doubles, though intelligence experts concluded that it was probably Saddam. Still, that did not rule out the possibility that the speech may have been previously taped.

Lawmakers briefed by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice late last week say that the White House did not rule out the possibility that Saddam was dead or gravely injured. A U.S. intelligence official says that early Thursday morning, electronic intercepts picked up frantic calls for medical assistance from someone at the bombing site, though there was no indication which Iraqi leaders had been hit. Three days after the strike, U.S. strategists still didn’t know exactly who had been taken out, but they were certain, says an intelligence official, that “we got somebody.”

The allies’ show of might and the possibility that the U.S. air strikes may have picked off Saddam initially raised hopes that a war so widely dreaded would come to a mercifully short end. Even some White House officials wondered aloud whether the opening-night salvo and the rapid advance of American ground forces might render the “shock and awe” of the Pentagon’s planned assault unnecessary. But the battlefield picture remained too muddled for allied commanders to hold their fire for long.

The initial wave of U.S. ground forces, led by British marines and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, swept into southern Iraq on Thursday night. Though limited to a few targets in Baghdad, the early bombardment had staggered the Iraqi regime, cutting it off from its field commanders, Pentagon officials asserted, and leaving much of its undermanned, underfed army on its own in the face of the allied onslaught. That may explain why U.S. and British troops encountered meager resistance as they pushed toward the oil-rich southern Iraqi city of Basra. One day into the ground war, allied forces secured the town of Safwan and the port city of Umm Qasr; Marines seized two vital oil fields that Saddam’s forces may have been preparing to set ablaze. Iraqi forces managed to set fire to only nine of 1,000 oil wells. In western Iraq, special-operations forces secured a key airfield where U.S. officials thought Saddam was hiding Scud missiles that could hit Israel.

On Friday, as called for in the original plan, the U.S. finally delivered the shock and awe, pulverizing targets in Baghdad and positions scattered throughout the country with a barrage of bombs dropped from hundreds of planes, as well as Tomahawks fired from 30 warships. By then, the Iraqi will to fight was weakening across southern Iraq. Close to 10,000 Iraqi troops surrendered in the first three days of conflict; on Saturday, Iraq’s 51st Infantry Division, a 200-tank-strong corps charged with defending Basra, told U.S. commanders it was giving up. On Friday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said surrender discussions between U.S. officials and some Iraqi military leaders had intensified. “They’re beginning to realize the regime is history,” Rumsfeld said. “And as that realization sets in, their behavior is likely to begin to tip and to change.”

Even a rapid victory for the allies must come with costs. U.S. and British forces lost 22 soldiers in the war’s first three days. Nineteen died in military accidents. Early Sunday morning more than a dozen U.S. soldiers were wounded and one killed in a grenade attack on a camp housing the 101st Airborne Division; a U.S. soldier was held in connection with the attack. At least two soldiers died at the hands of overmatched enemy forces that nevertheless tried to fight off the invaders. Allied troops found themselves in fire fights near the cities of Samawah, Basra and Nasiriyah. Some Iraqi soldiers left their positions, put on plain clothes and vanished into the populace, raising concerns that they would stage guerrilla attacks on Western troops as they drew closer. Despite signs of weakening Iraqi morale, the mass surrenders witnessed at the end of the first Gulf War had yet to materialize. “We think they’re coming,” a senior Pentagon official said late last week. “We’ve really only been bombing for 24 hours.”

American and British forces could still confront fearsome resistance if the Republican Guard units defending Baghdad are ready and willing to fight. No one expected Iraqi forces to put up much of a struggle in the barren, Shi’ite-dominated south, where support for Saddam’s regime is soft. “We figured they would cave,” says a Pentagon official. “They aren’t the Republican Guard.” But Saddam’s most loyal fighters remain entrenched farther north, outside the capital and in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. While their numbers are dwindling by the day — from desertions if not from U.S. bombs — at least some are expected to try to lure the invaders into a bloody urban campaign. U.S. and British troops are also still scrambling to uncover Iraq’s suspected arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a task that would reduce the risks to advancing troops and also validate their governments’ chief rationale for war.

Even as it closes in on Saddam, the military faces the larger task of maintaining order in a country full of conflicts waiting to erupt. Last week more than 1,000 Turkish troops crossed the border into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq to reinforce up to 7,000 already there, raising the dreaded possibility of a confrontation between the Turks and anti-Saddam Kurdish forces, who fear the Turks will never leave. Because Ankara refused to allow the U.S. to send ground troops into northern Iraq through Turkey, the U.S. may not be able to do much if skirmishes break out. “We don’t have the kind of force that could really stand between the Turks and the Kurds,” says a U.S. official.

As allied troops begin to liberate Iraqi cities from Saddam’s tyranny, the battle for the hearts and minds of 22 million Iraqis will remain impossible to win so long as the country is under relentless U.S. bombardment. A nagging anxiety among U.S. commanders is that the toll on Iraqi civilians is bound to increase if the allies face stiffer resistance near Baghdad. Although Rumsfeld insisted that the U.S.’s massive aerial blitz has spared not just civilians but also infrastructure targets like roads, bridges and power plants, there was less certainty among some of the soldiers who carried out the attacks. “We want to avoid collateral damage, but that is the most difficult thing,” said a combat pilot aboard the U.S.S. Constellation after returning from a bombing run. “When we drop that bomb, we know that someone is dying.”

Although the battlefield produced the usual fog of conflicting reports, at least one thing was made clear with the first salvo: the principal target of Gulf War II is not the Iraqi military but Saddam himself. Inside the U.S. war rooms, quickly decapitating the Iraqi regime is seen as critical to bringing about the destruction of the enemy. “We want to turn the Iraqi military into a chicken with its head cut off,” a senior Navy official says. Saddam “might be able to strike back, but it will be uncoordinated and ultimately fruitless.” Defense sources say that U.S. forces will rush to Baghdad as quickly as possible to try to corner Saddam and flush him out into the open; if a coup or assassination fails to dislodge him, U.S. air and ground forces plan to launch more strikes against critical targets inside the capital in an effort to kill him. A senior U.S official told TIME that covert U.S. intelligence personnel have infiltrated Baghdad, hunting in the shadows for the Iraqi leaders. “We’ve had some folks on the ground over there now for weeks,” the official says.

The decision to target Saddam directly in the war’s first hours reflected the White House’s determination to seize the offensive after weeks of humbling diplomatic rebuffs. The early strike “did not change the original plan at all,” says a senior Administration official. “It was an addition.” Waiting for the diplomatic clock to run out wore at Bush. Aides say the President’s mood shifted early last week after the U.S. and Britain decided to withdraw a second U.N. Security Council resolution that essentially would have authorized force against Iraq. That move made war almost certain. “It’s a totally different mind-set when you go from a diplomatic process to a military operation; you have more control of the terms,” says a senior White House official. “It’s no mystery this President likes clarity.”

At the White House last Tuesday, Bush held a lengthy meeting with Rice, Rumsfeld and a handful of high-ranking Pentagon officials to go over the final preparations for the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The next morning, hours before the deadline for Saddam’s departure ran out, Bush held a videoconference in the White House Situation Room with members of his war council, as well as U.S. Central Command Chief Army General Tommy Franks and the top commanders in the region.

Bush opened the meeting by greeting Franks, who had traveled to the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia to meet with the war’s top air commander, Air Force Lieut. General T. Michael Moseley. Bush teased Franks for the general’s clumsiness with the videoconferencing technology; when Franks apologized, Bush said, “Don’t worry, Tommy, I haven’t lost faith in you.” The room broke into laughter, but Bush quickly grew serious. “Do you have everything you need to win?” he asked each of the commanders. “Are you comfortable and pleased with the strategy?” After receiving assurances from all the participants, Bush asked Franks whether the general had anything left to say. “This force is ready to go,” Franks said. Bush gave the order to “execute Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The war would begin on Friday. “God bless the troops,” Bush said, as he saluted Franks and walked out of the situation room.

Sooner than anyone expected, Bush was back. On Wednesday afternoon CIA Director George Tenet received an astonishing report, transmitted over the CIA’s classified communications network: U.S. intelligence sources had pinpointed the whereabouts of Saddam and his top military leaders in Baghdad; Administration officials told TIME that the intelligence was gleaned from multiple sources, including electronic eavesdropping and reports from a single Iraqi official who had recently turned on Saddam. A senior Jordanian official says tips were also passed to the U.S. by a Jordanian diplomat and Egyptian intelligence agents, who claimed they had identified Saddam’s exact location. For days, a senior White House aide says, the CIA had been conducting an all-sources operation to try to track Saddam’s movements. On Wednesday they hit pay dirt. According to the aide, at least one CIA source gave the agency what it thought was “a positive ID” for Saddam. “It was very specific: This is where he is, this is where he’s going, this is the possible location.” If the U.S. military acted fast enough, it could kill Saddam while he slept.

Tenet rushed to the Pentagon and briefed Rumsfeld on the report; the two called the White House to request a meeting with the President. An hour later Bush met with Tenet, Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Air Force General Richard Myers and the other members of the war council — including Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew Card. From his headquarters in Qatar, Franks dialed in over a secure line. The rest of the group spent the next three hours shuttling in and out of the Oval Office, discussing what to do with the intelligence on Saddam, running through scenarios and calling for more information. Fresh reports detailing the dimensions and coordinates of Saddam’s bunker streamed in from the CIA.

Typically, meetings of a group like this are exercises in official decorum, with Cabinet members presenting the President with lists of options and no one speaking out of turn; White House officials say that on Wednesday the Oval Office was a swirl of activity. Chairs were dragged in from the hallway; the President’s advisers leaned over one another and volunteered their assessments as more raw intelligence reports flowed in. Bush asked whether the weather might impede an attack on Saddam, how quickly U.S. forces could carry out the mission and how an early strike could affect the rest of the battle plan. Racing against the clock and unable to confirm much of what it was hearing, the U.S. ran the risk of making a costly opening-night bombing mistake that could embolden Saddam and his forces. Franks said he needed a decision by 7:15 p.m. E.T. At 7:12 Bush asked the members of his team for their recommendations; all of them argued for a strike to decapitate the Baghdad regime. Bush didn’t need much convincing. “Let’s go,” he said.

The order reached the warships stationed in the waters off Iraq at 2:30 a.m. local time Thursday. Onboard the U.S.S. Constellation, Navy Prowlers, charged with jamming the enemy’s air-defense and communications systems, were told to take off for Baghdad within the hour. Two F-117s based in Qatar followed behind them, reaching the skies above Iraq’s capital before dawn broke. “It was fairly quiet,” says the pilot of a Prowler aircraft, who asked to be identified by his handle, Dutch. “There wasn’t a lot going on.”

That would soon change. The Tomahawks reached their targets shortly after 5 a.m., exploding with a force that shook the city. They were followed by four bunker-buster smart bombs from the F117s. After U.S. commanders debriefed their pilots and assessed the bomb damage Thursday morning, Pentagon officials knew the mission had shocked the Iraqi leadership, but Saddam’s fate remained unknown. “Everybody expected it to begin with ‘shock and awe’ and figured Saddam would see it coming,” says a senior Defense official. “But by doing it this way, we were able to preserve some tactical surprise.”

The allies faced surprises of their own. On Thursday Iraqi forces responded to the U.S. strike by setting several oil wells on fire and lobbing missiles toward allied troops massing on the border. Though none hit their target, the Iraqi missiles were enough to unnerve many of the U.S. forces, which were gearing up to begin their invasion on Friday. With each missile alert, frontline soldiers were forced to retreat to their bunkers and don full-protection biochem suits, only to hear minutes later that the bombs had landed in the desert or the gulf. Even commanders in Kuwait held videoconferences with Franks while wearing their gas masks. The haphazard nature of Iraq’s response convinced Pentagon officials that the U.S. strike had succeeded in creating a power vacuum inside the Iraqi military command, cutting links between Baghdad and its forces in the field. But the possibility that those forces would panic, firing off more weapons and sabotaging southern oil fields, persuaded the U.S. commanders to begin the ground war on Thursday, 24 hours ahead of schedule.

It didn’t seem to matter. Whatever enemy resistance the allies expected to face on their first push into Iraq was gone by the time they got there. Columns of U.S. and British tanks, trucks, humvees and armored personnel carriers fanned out across the southern Iraqi desert on the road to Baghdad. In the war’s first days, Bedouin campsites were a more common sight than Iraqi garrisons. Some U.S. troops could barely hide their disappointment at not coming under enemy fire. “What the hell did we come here to do?” asked First Sergeant William Mitchell, 34, a member of Charlie Rock Company, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, as his crew idled on the highway last week. On Friday members of Charlie Rock burst into the southern city of Nasiriyah, fully expecting a battle with Iraqi forces. As their convoy roared toward the Tallil airfield south of Nasiriyah, the brigade’s gunners and dismount crews oiled their M-16s and readied the grips on their .50-cal. turret machine guns. But the brigade commanders ordered the convoy to stop its advance. Mitchell and his unit sat on a highway shoulder for hours. When they finally arrived to seize their main target — the Tallil airfield, an Iraqi military installation — the company found only a weed-strewn apron of rusting, wrecked Iraqi warplanes. “It’s just plain embarrassing,” Major Richard Des Jardin muttered.

By the end of the week the U.S. military push was making enough progress that war planners were considering slowing down the aerial bombardment that began Friday night. But that was not a sure thing. “They’ve got lots of stuff to keep us busy,” said a Pentagon official of the Iraqis, “and if they hole up, we’ll start hitting the holes.” In the first two nights of raids, the Pentagon said, U.S. bombs rained down on more than 1,500 targets across the country; in Baghdad alone, hundreds of targets were said to have been hit.

The U.S. assault was stunning as much for its apparent precision as for its violence. Military experts say the Pentagon is concentrating on effects-based bombings. In previous wars, the U.S. military has tried to take out command-and-control facilities by destroying every power station in a given area, but precision-guided technology allows U.S. warplanes to pinpoint the power plants that serve Saddam and his aides and spare the rest. Indeed, even while Saddam’s palaces came under a ferocious barrage, the lights stayed on in Baghdad.

For the allied command, the hope remains that the mere demonstration of American air power will persuade large numbers of Saddam’s best trained and most loyal soldiers, the Republican and Special Republican Guard, to surrender before the U.S. and British forces begin a siege of Baghdad. A senior Administration official told TIME that the military has “killed a significant number of the Republican Guard. We’re trying to break their will and get them to go home.” Defense officials predicted last week that up to a quarter of the Republican Guard troops would surrender if the details were worked out. “They’re using the psychological instrument to collapse [the enemy’s] will through intimidation and the creation in his mind of inevitable defeat,” says Robert Scales, a retired Army major general. U.S. military officials are convinced that if Saddam manages to retain command and control of his forces, he will try to unleash chemical and biological weapons against allied troops and that most of those weapons are in the hands of forces close to the capital. Among the soldiers moving toward Baghdad last week, the specter of unconventional warfare was never far from their minds, as they endured the heat of their biochemical suits while riding in tanks and armored personnel vehicles. “We fully expect to face a dirty battlefield at some point,” says Colonel Daniel Allyn, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade. “I don’t look forward to the fight of that kind, but I am confident it will not defeat us.”

For the Administration, uncovering Saddam’s weapons stores is critical to blunting opposition to the war. The U.S. also hopes that scenes of liberated Iraqis cheering the Americans’ arrival would silence the antiwar crowd, but those images were proving scarce. In cities liberated by the allies last week, there were few signs of jubilation. While glad to be freed from Saddam’s terror, the mostly Shi’ite population remained suspicious of U.S. motives and fearful that the U.S. would abandon them, as it did during uprisings after Gulf War I. Muhsen Salem, 24, a farmer from Safwan, says he is “very happy now but scared the Americans might leave.” Many Iraqis say they are disappointed that humanitarian aid did not begin flowing as soon as U.S. and British forces moved in. Military officials say the second wave of invasion forces — the civil-affairs officers who will administer the allied relief effort — are heading toward the cities under American control. But it may still be weeks before significant amounts of food and medical aid arrive.

Urban combat, chemical weapons, civilian casualties, guerrilla warfare, humanitarian crises in the south, instability in the north — whatever the unknowns that lurked ahead, the war machine was undeterred, as evidenced by the various units rolling across the desert, preparing to deliver the ultimate blow to the Iraqi regime. While each day that the war drags on gives the Iraqis a chance to regroup, it also grants allied forces the opportunity to reload. As the 3rd Infantry Division made its way past Nasiriyah, a long column of the 101st Airborne Division barreled out of Kuwait into the desert on a parallel track, crossing the marshes and heading toward Baghdad. Scores of Harriers and A-10 Warthogs took off from bases in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and from aircraft carriers in the gulf, providing support to the Marines and British ground forces laying siege to Basra. Midday Sunday, the Marine column ran into stiff resistance outside Nasiriyah in what appeared to be a coming together of Iraqi forces that had been fighting in sporadic skirmishes with the 3rd Infantry over the previous 36 hours. Nasiriyah remained unoccupied by U.S. forces. In the capital, Saddam’s Interior Minister, Mohammed Diab al-Ahmed, appeared before journalists, brandishing a Kalashnikov. “It is Bush who is the lone fighter,” al-Ahmed said. “It is we who will achieve a great victory, and we are not dreaming.” Maybe not. But the regime’s worst nightmare is about to begin.

— Reported by Mark Thompson, Tim Burger, James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Douglas Waller/Washington; Brian Bennett/with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing; Sally B. Donnelly/Doha; Meenakshi Ganguly/on the U.S.S. Constellation; Terry McCarthy/Safwan; and Alex Perry/Nasiriyah

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