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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Strike on Iraq "Decapitation Strike"

Aired March 19, 2003 - 22:29   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I'm sorry -- Aaron? I'm sorry. CNN has been told that this was, in fact, a decapitation strike aimed at killing or at the very least sending a powerful message to Saddam Hussein. This strike, which was -- employed cruise missiles and F-117 stealth fighters over Baghdad was targeting a location where it was believed Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leadership were located.

Now this kind of intelligence is always somewhat problematic, and the U.S. military is well aware that this kind of a strike, using cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs from the air, has a low probability of success in targeting an individual. But nevertheless, apparently there was an enough intelligence for the United States to attempt a decapitation strike to take out Saddam Hussein, even before the war began.

This is not the beginning of the war, according to a U.S. official telling CNN. But, in fact, it was a target of opportunity that the U.S. felt it could not pass up. The intelligence would not last long enough for them to wait for the scheduled start of the war. So, Aaron, very dramatic information here. And, of course, now we want to know the results of this strike. And at this point we have no idea.

BROWN: And that may take some time to know. But, again, as Jamie reported, it appears to be an attack on a leadership bunker or a place where perhaps Saddam Hussein was. Perhaps he and the government of Iraq were hiding out, trying to stay safe.

Attacked by cruise missiles. The United States government, the United States military has done this sort of thing before with less success. It's not an easy thing to do, and we won't know for some time if it was successful. It may be a long time. Nic Robertson what are you hearing in Baghdad?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, the anti-aircraft gunfire picking up again at this time. Very interesting the target of opportunity struck apparently Saddam Hussein possibly somewhere he was believed to be. One remembers only a few hours ago when the rumor circulated that Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz might have been killed or defected.

Iraq was very swift, within half an hour, putting Tariq Aziz on international television so that everyone could see not only in Iraq, but around the world, that this rumor wasn't true. Possibly an indication here President Saddam Hussein may himself speak to disprove any rumor or any indication or any thought amongst his followers that this strike may have been successful.

He may choose to do, as he did in the day the Gulf War started in 1991. Then he chose to speak on Iraqi television. That is something we may see later today.

Certainly, for now, the anti-aircraft gunfire here sporadic. It appears to be not coming from the center of the city, perhaps a little bit out of the center. The skies above the city beginning to clear a little. The clouds opening to allow through some blue skies. Still a little hazy, the visibility here, Aaron.

BROWN: We see, Nic, and I know you can't, so I'll just tell you what we're seeing in these pictures that we are able now to establish again from Baghdad. There is some traffic. Not a lot, but there is some traffic on the street.

It does not look to us to be military vehicles, although some of it might be. But there is still some traffic moving as we approach about 6:30 in the morning in Baghdad. Nic, stay with us for as long as you can hold the phone line.

John King at the White House, the president made all of the points that he has in many respects been making for the last several weeks, if not months. This is not a war against Islam.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, only four minutes from the president...

BROWN: John?

KING: Yes, Aaron.

BROWN: John King, can you hear me?

KING: I hear you fine.

BROWN: I was saying the president was making a lot of the points that he has been making for a long time. This is not a war on the Iraqi population, not a war on Islam, it is a war on Saddam Hussein and his regime.

KING: And in that, and in only four minutes, as you noted, the president touching on that important political message aimed at the citizens of Iraq and more broadly the Arab street across the Middle East. He said the United States has no ambition in Iraq, it simply wants to free and liberate its people and remove a tyrant from power.

The president making no secret that the goal is regime change. Also, a political message to the people of the United States, though. Mr. Bush saying this conflict could be longer and more difficult than some predicted and would require a long and sustained effort to build up a new Iraq in the wake of this war. So Mr. Bush speaking both directly to the Arab citizens of the Middle East, and also to the citizens here at home in laying out the early hours of what he promised would be a campaign using decisive force.

We are witnessing the early moments of the war in Iraq. A much more controversial war than the president launched October 2001 against the Taliban and al Qaeda. And in this campaign to remove Saddam Hussein from power we are seeing the first test of this very controversial Bush administration policy in which this president says he has the right as commander in chief of the United States to attack a nation if he perceives it to be a threat against the United States, even if it has not attacked the United States.

BROWN: Again, as you look at Baghdad, it is eerie, when you consider that -- it's clear from the president's words, the president's words that the early stages of the disarmament of Iraq has begun. The war, whether it is the full massive rollout that we all anticipated and were told to expect, or something of a smaller scale, as you look at Baghdad, it is quiet and to our eye as calm as calm can be.

Now there may be parts of Baghdad itself where that is not true. We have a small number of cameras, and they certainly don't cover the large city or the large country. As you've heard many times, the country is the size of California. But, again, you don't see -- although we thought we heard some loud speakers coming from the city a while ago -- you don't see any sense of panic in the city, any sense of movement in the city, or frankly any sense of war in the city.

General Clark, your eye on these matters is far sharper than mine. What do you see?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you can't see anything in Baghdad right now. It looks like there are some lights on, so they haven't executed a blackout of the city. We haven't heard any sirens recently. The shooting has stopped. So that means there is good command and control or some command and control over the air defense.

So we haven't taken out all the air defense assets yet. And it sounds to me like it was precisely what we were speculating on, Aaron. That they had an opportunity to strike at the leadership, and they had planned to be ready if they had such an opportunity. They had it, they struck. Hopefully it will have some impact. But as has been observed, it is probably not the main effort at this point.

BROWN: But it is under way whatever it is. It has started. That much is clear from both the events on the ground in Baghdad and from the words of the president of the United States.

In the Kuwaiti desert, literally hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and Marines have been waiting now for some weeks for a moment that is about to unfold. That much is clear.

Walt Rodgers is one of the many CNN correspondents who is -- and you'll hear this term a lot -- embedded with these units. He has been with them, lived with them, and will travel with them and report on them. And Walt Rodgers joins us now from the desert in Kuwait -- Walt.

WALT RODGERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Aaron. I think what we can say at this point is that the U.S. Army, particularly the 7th Calvary, is tugging at the leash to be released. But this again, as the president said, was a selective strike.

The Army is still sitting in northern Kuwait. It has not been ordered into southern Iraq yet. That is the situation we find ourselves in.

This unit, the 7th Calvary, which is the scouting unit, can move very, very quickly. But, again, the Army remains in Kuwait. It has not been ordered into Iraq. What the president ordered was a selective air strike.

Joining me now is the Apache Troop Commander, Captain Clay Lyle, 7th Calvary. Captain Lyle, we're sitting here waiting. Do you have any indication what your orders are going to be and when? What happens when you get the order to go? Begin by telling us that.

CAPT. CLAY LYLE, 3RD SQUADRON, 7TH CALVARY: Currently, none of my orders have been changed. We have been and we remain ready. The soldiers' morale is high and we are well trained and equipped. And this is news to me. I know the president will act in our best interest, as well as all my higher commanders.

RODGERS: Last night the CO of this unit, Lieutenant Colonel Farrell (ph), was telling the soldiers to expect to fight. How do you see the battle unfolding from your point of view?

LYLE: We just -- we've looked at the threat in that country from all the different elements that are there, have been in place to do with the regime. And we're just prepared to deal with whatever we encounter to try to handle the situation. But try to view ourselves liberating the people of Iraq and trying to remove that regime, not invading Iraq. And not fighting the people of Iraq.

RODGERS: How powerful a military force is the U.S. Army going to throw at the Iraqis once the order comes to charge?

LYLE: I'm sure our superiors and the president will use everything at his disposal to ensure our safety and...

RODGERS: No, but I'm talking about the Army. Tell us about the Army. How much punch does this Army have?

LYLE: My troop, this squadron, the 3rd Infantry division have the best equipment in the world, and we're trained. We have been here in the country training and climatizing (ph) for quite a while now. The M1-A1 tank and the Bradley apaches and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) helicopters, we're ready and we can deal with whatever threat we encounter.

RODGERS: And what sort of resistance do you expect once you cross the border? LYLE: It's hard to tell how the individual Iraqi soldier, when he encounters American forces, the decision he'll make. I hope he makes the right decision and surrenders to the nearest American soldier.

RODGERS: Captain Clay Lyle (ph), the commander of Apache Troupe U.S. 7 Cavalry, saying, still not sure what the Army will face once it crosses the border.

Again, the dogs of war have not been unleashed down here yet, but the 7th Calvary is ready -- Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you, Walt -- Walt Rodgers. And we will be back to you.

Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, you're able to continue doing some reporting here, picking up pieces. What do you have?

MCINTYRE: We're slowly piecing it together, Aaron. We now know that this strike was carried out by more than a dozen or two dozen cruise missiles fired from ships both in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. So, those cruise missiles came at Baghdad from two different directions.

In addition, F-117 stealth fighters, which can carry two satellite-guided bombs, were also involved in the strike, which, sources tell CNN, was in fact was a decapitation attempt, that is, an attempt to take out Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and some of his leadership at a location where U.S. intelligence indicated he may have been.

Now, this kind of a strike from the air aimed at an individual on the ground has a very low probability of success, because it's difficult to hit, to kill somebody on the ground. It's also entirely possible somebody could move in the time between the planes take off. But, apparently, it felt that this was a target of opportunity that could not be passed up. Saddam Hussein did not avail himself of the 48-hour window to seek exile in another country. And, at that point, the U.S. believed he was fair game.

Obviously, if the United States military did take out or could take out Saddam Hussein before any shots were fired, that would greatly decrease the chance of bloodshed, of casualties, and certainly increase the chance the Iraqi military would fold, particularly the Republican Guard.

It's always been believed that Saddam Hussein's rule by fear is what's really keeping his military fighting at all. So I'm assuming here that the thinking was, it was worth a shot. If they had intelligence, they could possibly take him out, they'd go ahead and try. But, again, this is a limited strike aimed at a leadership target of opportunity. And, at this point, the full-blown war, the so-called shock and awe, with thousands of cruise missiles and bombs has not yet taken place and may not take place for another day or so -- Aaron.

BROWN: Is that right, that we may be still a day or more away from this unfolding, in the president's terms, a broad way?

MCINTYRE: Well, think about it, because, first of all, you need to find out the success of this mission. If it turns out that Saddam Hussein is dead or he doesn't appear anywhere, that could completely change how this war would unfold. It could turn it into a peaceful intervention.

It could certainly break the back of the will of the Iraqi army to fight. So the key point now for the next 24 hours is to figure out what happened.

BROWN: General Clark, General Wesley Clark, the former supreme NATO commander, does it resonate -- forgive me for that word -- does it resonate to you at all that, having now made this attack, having the president of the United States go on to indicate that this is on, that we still may be 24, 48 hours or so away from the shock and awe, as Pentagon planners have described it, of this war?

CLARK: Aaron, I think it's entirely possible that that could be the case. Again, of course, none of us have seen the operations plan. We really don't know what is going to happen, but I think it's entirely possible, and I'll tell you why: because we're in the phase now where we're flying and we have got reconnaissance and we're striking around Baghdad.

One of the things we learned in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo was that you have to be over the target. You have to try to elicit the responses from target. You want his radars on, his communications on. You want to pick up that. So a day or two of juking and fading and going in and out and putting the pressure on pays psychological dividends. It gives more opportunity for reconnaissance.

On the other hand, it could be that this is a pause. Maybe it's a four-hour pause. Maybe it's six hours. Maybe something's already happening somewhere else that we're just not seeing on the television.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: I'm sorry. General Clark, does the United States military have so little fear of the Iraqi military that they would launch this attack and then allow four hours, eight hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, for the other side to marshal its forces?

CLARK: Well, I think that that, in this case, would be a risk you could handle.

And let me explain that, because we've got continuous visibility over much of Iraq. We've got scouts forward. We've got special operations forward. We've got satellites. We've got aircraft. We've got moving-target indicators off those aircraft. So, when the Iraqi start to move their forces, we're going to see them. And they're moving from one position where they're vulnerable into another position where they're vulnerable.

There's a risk, as you delay, that, if he has these chemical weapons and biological weapons, and he has got missiles, there is a risk that he would strike our forces in the staging areas. But, on the other hand, our forces have apparently moved from their locations. And even though Kuwait looks small on a map, it's big when you compare it to the radius of destruction of something launched from a missile.

So we've moved to new locations to reduce our vulnerability, perhaps. So it's not inconceivable that we could wait here.

BROWN: Is it likely that there are units, there are American and British units in the deserts of Kuwait who do not yet know what has happened so far tonight?

CLARK: I think that is possible. I don't think that the troops down at the platoon and company level would necessarily be told there's a decapitating strike. On the other hand, some of them may be in the headquarters plugged in and watching CNN. We always did watch the television broadcasts, CNN included, when we were there in Kosovo and Albania and so forth, because it is a source of up-to-the-minute news.

So they may have known it that way. And it may be put out on the command net. But, in general, the lower you are, the less you tend to know and the more you're focused on exactly what your mission is ahead. These troops have got a lot on their minds.

BROWN: General Clark, stay with us here as we go.

This all began about an hour ago. It began to us with a report from Nic Robertson, who is on the phone with us from Baghdad. Nic has been in Baghdad reporting for some time. And he reported anti- aircraft fire, which we now know was the beginning of a cruise missile attack, or the defense against a cruise missile attack, not much of a defense, that.

Nic is still on the phone -- Nic.

ROBERTSON: Yes, Aaron.

Hearing some more anti-aircraft gunfire firing off, not coming from the center of the city, but distinct, perhaps coming from just a couple of miles away. As you reported earlier, there is a little bit of traffic on the road. Some of it is military traffic. They don't look like military vehicles, but they are, in fact, military vehicles moving around the city.

But the anti-aircraft gunfire, at this time, it seems to be sporadic. It seems to be fired at a perceived target. It is a target that we can't see or locate and a target that we cannot hear at this time. The anti-aircraft gunfire appears to be coming from many different areas, but difficult to say exactly where, but areas that are several miles away from where we are, Aaron?

BROWN: OK, Nic, thank you.

He says war with Iraq apparently has begun. The president made it pretty clear that the early stages of the war, what he described as the mission to disarm Iraq, is under way. He described these early efforts as selected military targets to undermine the Iraqis' ability to counter the coalition forces, which have massed on the Kuwaiti border and elsewhere at sea and, of course, in the skies.

It is, again, this all -- I'm sorry. This all began about an hour ago.

I know you guys are trying to talk to me. Go ahead. Got it.

Jamie McIntyre -- thank you -- is at the Pentagon -- Jamie.

MCINTYRE: Well, Aaron, you already mentioned this, because the president mentioned it.

He said targets. Selected targets of military importance was the president's words. And we are confirming now that there were more than one target. There was a target in Baghdad and there was at least another target south of Baghdad, OK? And we don't know exactly what the targets were. We don't know if they were presidential palaces or bunkers or what.

But there were more than one target that was the subject of this cruise missile and F-117 stealth fighter strike in Baghdad, again, a leadership target of opportunity, an apparent decapitation attempt to take out the leadership of Iraq before even any of the other shots have been fired in this war.

Of course, this is the beginning of hostilities, but the U.S. is going to want to figure out exactly what it accomplished, if anything, before it decides how it is going to proceed with the opening salvo of what was promising to be a very punishing bombing campaign.

BROWN: These flashes that we've seen over Baghdad, as best as we have been able to tell as we watch them, have been tracer fire from the ground to the sky. We have not seen -- from our camera positions, we have not been able to see these cruise missile attacks at all.

Again, around the country now, there are all sorts of military operations waiting to move in on the borders.

Ben Wedeman is in the northern part of Iraq. Ben is with Kurdish troops. This is part of the complicated ethnic and religious makeup of Iraq that, over the weeks that this war plays out, we suspect we'll spend a fair amount of time talking about, probably not the night for it now, but it is the time to go to Ben and see what he can tell us -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Aaron.

Well, by and large, at least in this part of the northern front, it appears to be rather quiet. Right behind me are hills which do have Iraqi army emplacements. We've seen that the number of Iraqi troops who are there have been increased in recent weeks. But, by and large, it's quiet. We have been watching some Iraqi troops. It is early in the morning here, but they've been wandering between the positions, most of them, in fact, unarmed. And so it's very calm here at the moment. We've noted that, in the last hour or so, actually, the number of Kurdish troops, however, has increased significantly here. We saw two leadership cars of the Kurdish Democratic Party driving into this town, which is next to me, the town of Kalat (ph), which has been, by and large, evacuated by its inhabitants, numbering about 6,000, so very much expectation of something here. But, at the moment, as I said, very quiet on this front -- Aaron.

BROWN: Ben, thank you very much -- Ben Wedeman.

CNN correspondents, lots of them, are embedded, is the term. Technically, Ben wouldn't be embedded, but he's been with the Kurdish military. And we thought correspondents embedded with units around Kuwait, ultimately, and not too very far along the road here, they will clearly be in Iraq. And we'll be hearing their reports, in many cases, in real time, as whatever plays out plays out.

As you look at these pictures of Iraq, of Baghdad right now, you know what has happened. You know that a dozen to two dozen cruise missiles have hit a couple of sites, one site in the city. At the same time, oddly, life has gone on. Iraqi TV has been on the air. Iraqi radio has been on the air, all of normal Thursday morning life. I think that's probably a bit of a stretch, to say normal Thursday morning life has gone on. But, in fact, life has gone on.

Out in the Persian Gulf, the USS Constellation of the one aircraft carriers that is in play and will ultimately -- its planes will ultimately play a role in this. Frank Buckley is embedded with those sailors and those pilots.

And Frank joins us now to give us a sense of what they know out there and what the mood is out there -- Frank.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, I watched the president's comments along with a group of officers in a lounge, and that group of officers including some pilots who might be involved in any strikes against Iraq. They watched quietly, solemnly, as the president made the comments regarding this first beginning phase. They expressed, as we have heard over and over, sort of a sense of relief since the president announced the deadline against Iraq.

Also, you get a sense of this moment in history among the ship's crew. During launches that have been taking place from the flight deck of this aircraft carrier in recent hours -- and I'm being careful not to say exactly when those launches exactly were -- but during recent hours, when you go out on the area that's known as vulture's row overlooking the flight deck, I've seen more people out there during recent hours than I have in my two-plus weeks on this ship, sailors who are going out with their own video cameras, their own cameras to take pictures of what they believe is a moment in history.

As far as the actual launches and flight schedule off this carrier, U.S. Navy officials tell us that they're involved in normally scheduled missions, Operation Southern Watch missions. But a sense of what is to come is evident in the hangar bay of this aircraft carrier, Aaron, row after row of 2,000-pound JDAM bombs lined up in the hangar bay of the USS Constellation -- Aaron.

BROWN: Frank, thank you.

We know, many of you, when we start talking about where troops are, what troops are doing, get very nervous. And we do, too. The rules that we are operating under, rules that the Pentagon and news organizations around the world have agreed to is that, while our correspondents are embedded, they are in place, they will be free to broadcast or file. They won't be censored.

But they do remain under the control, to some degree, of unit commanders as to whether they can file. And, certainly, at no time will we be discussing specifically where they are, specifically what they're going after. We are very -- going to be very conservative on this. We are not interested in endangering a single life to get a story more quickly. There's -- nothing is served by that.

So, understand the rules that are being played by. And as you hear these reports, understand that we are extraordinarily aware of the danger American and British forces are in and extraordinarily careful in how we're going to report whatever it is that is about to play out on the borders of Iraq.

Christiane Amanpour and Wolf Blitzer will spend a considerable amount of time, however long this ultimately goes, whether that is a few weeks or longer, in Kuwait, reporting the story from there, both seasoned war correspondents, as most of you know, certainly. And they join us now from Kuwait -- Christiane and Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Aaron, there's no doubt that the original game plan was for a day or two of concerted airstrikes before the U.S. ground forces which are amassed in the northern part of Iraq, would move in -- the northern part of Kuwait, that is -- would move in.

So there's no doubt that -- there should be no surprise that those 100,000-plus U.S. troops, another 30,000 or so British troops in the northern part of Kuwait are not yet moving into southern Iraq. The expectation was always that there would be a massive airstrike at the start of this war. As Jamie McIntyre and others are now reporting, though, there were some targets of opportunity.

And, as a result, the U.S. began what was an opportunity to try, in the words of U.S. officials, decapitate -- decapitate -- the Iraqi leadership, if you will. Now, this is allowed under the rules that have been established. It was also allowed during the first Persian Gulf War. If you go after what are called command-and-control areas and the leadership, including the president of Iraq, happen to be inside those so-called command-and-control areas, it would not necessarily violate the prohibition that was incorporated by President Gerald Ford in 1977 that forbids assassination of foreign leaders.

In a military kind of environment, when there is a war, U.S. government lawyers have determined, if you go after the leadership, if you try to kill the command-and-control leadership in the course of a war, that is not necessarily a violation of that rule barring assassination.

And joining me here is Christiane Amanpour. We've been...

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: I'm sorry, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Aaron.

BROWN: I recall two, perhaps two, three weeks ago, Ari Fleischer, in one of the just normal, routine press briefings, was asked about this point, because there had been a story out there that the president was considering lifting the prohibition.

And Mr. Fleischer made it very clear, very clear, that, once war starts, all bets are off, that Saddam Hussein is as much a target, a legitimate target as any other military target. He is a military leader, in some sense, the commander in chief of his armed forces. And he is fair game. And there's no question, from the beginning, that the United States would very much like to make sure that Saddam Hussein does not walk out of this in any way, shape or form.

BLITZER: Precisely. That's precisely the point I was trying to make, that this effort to try to kill, if you will, Saddam Hussein and the top leadership of Iraq, if in fact that's what occurred during these initial cruise missile strikes, F-117A strikes, at these selected targets in and around Baghdad, that would not, according to U.S. lawyers, government lawyers, be a violation of the executive order that was signed by President Ford way back in 1977.

Christiane, as you look at what's going on right now -- and you've obviously been involved deeply in covering this story, as I have, all these dozen years -- what goes through your mind?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you remember, of course, in the first Gulf War, they did try to get Saddam Hussein. They weren't able to. There were some misstrikes, as you remember, the Amiriya shelter. And that led to quite a lot of controversy. But this is not new. Of course, they were trying to go over to the leadership. And, of course, they want to get him. And they have made that very clear in this instance.

I think what's interesting -- and perhaps to review a little of what's gone on today already -- we had reports throughout the day that the U.S. and British aircraft have already been in action over areas in the no-flight zone, the southern no-flight zone. We're told they took out about 10 or a dozen artillery pieces that could have threatened U.S. and U.K. forces now in the demilitarized zone north of Kuwait and also that could have threatened Kuwait itself.

Also, the Pentagon and CENTCOM in neighboring Qatar have confirmed that 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered already before a bullet was even fired earlier today. So there's been a lot of psychological warfare. We've heard a lot about that, electronic warfare, and other kinds of psychological pressure to try to influence the Iraqi military not to fight and to take up nonoffensive positions. A lot of leaflets have been dropped. We talked to a senior British official -- rather, officer -- earlier today, who said that there had been about two million dropped over the last 24 hours as well.

And now, reading some of the wires that are coming out of Baghdad, again, very interesting. According to Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, the U.S. military appeared to have taken over the main frequency of the Iraqi state radio, saying that Saddam Hussein's administration was under attack -- quote -- "This is the day we've been waiting for."

In addition, they say, as we know that electricity is still working in the city, but that the state radio has ceased to broadcast after the blast. And minutes later, according, again, to a Reuters correspondent there, a new announcer broke in on state radio frequency, apparently from the U.S. military, apparently speaking in Arabic, saying the facilities of the Iraqi regime have started to be hit.

And if that is the case, that would measure up to what we have been hearing all these weeks and months, that there have been concerted efforts to make these messages, to get these messages across by the United States to the people and, of course, especially the military of Iraq.

BLITZER: And, Christiane, it is very significant I think, also. One sentence --- a lot of the sentences the president made were very significant, but one sentence in particular that I want to quote verbatim what the president said. He said: "This will not be a campaign of half-measures. And we will accept no outcome but victory."

That would seem to be a direct response to what happened in 1998, when the then Clinton administration launched cruise missile strikes against selected targets in Iraq after those U.N. weapons inspectors were pulled out. At the time, there was widespread criticism of Bill Clinton, the then president, and his administration for engaging in what his critics called were half-measures and not finishing the job. There were two or three days of strikes against Iraqi targets in Iraq at that time by the Clinton administration.

The Bush administration, at this point, clearly trying to make the point, this will not be a campaign of half-measures.

Our senior White House correspondent, John King, is over at the White House collecting information, as he always does -- John.

KING: Well, Wolf, we are told this pivotal moment, the first moment seeking this target of opportunity, this leadership target that includes Saddam Hussein, is the culmination of a meeting that ran nearly four hours in the Oval Office.

The president was briefed, we are told, by the CIA director, George Tenet, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, told by a senior official that that meeting broke up at 7:20 p.m. tonight, Washington time, just 40 minutes before the deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave the country. We are told, at that meeting, the president was told that U.S. intelligence sources and Pentagon officials were concerned they would lose a target of opportunity if they did not launch this selective strike, as the president called them tonight.

The president made the decision, we're told, at that meeting, again, that broke up at 7:20 p.m., just 40 minutes before the deadline, to go ahead with this limited operation. And to give you a sense of the business-like manner of this White House, the operation, the president gave the orders. He went to have dinner with the first lady. The operation, obviously, was under way. Mr. Bush came back and made that statement to the American people.

And within moments of finishing that statement, Mr. Bush walked back to the White House residence. We are told he is retiring for the night. Vice President Dick Cheney left. We are told he has gone home for the night. And National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has left the White House as well.

You can be certain that Dr. Rice would have stayed on hand had there been planned more any -- any massive-scale strikes that would be critical to this operation. So, as the president said, selective operations have begun, many more to follow -- Aaron.

BROWN: John, thank you -- CNN White House correspondent John King.

John, I don't know if you feel it in quite the same way, but we seem to be in a kind of odd moment, where we know something has started, something important has happened, but the full impact of it really has not yet started. And we know no more now when it will start than we knew all day long, as all of us, I suspect, in many cases, all over the country speculated on when it would begin. It is like a brief intermission in some terrible, but real movie.

KING: Exactly the case, that sense here at the White House, and a reinforcement of what the president said in his address earlier this week to the American people, when he said this war would begin at a time of America's choosing. He said America would strike at a time of its choosing. This is not the shock and awe that we expected on the first night of the war.

And we are told by senior officials here -- and the president certainly implied it in his remarks -- that that is yet to come. But we also were told that the president would act based on the advice of his generals. This is a commander in chief who listens to the generals. He does not fancy himself to be one.

We are told he asked tough questions, but trusts them. They came to him tonight and they told him they needed to act quickly, an extraordinary four-hour meeting, we are told, in the Oval Office. The president said, go ahead. The war has begun.

BROWN: John, thank you -- John King at the White House. Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman is with us tonight in Washington. And he was, of course, the Democratic vice presidential candidate and the Democratic senator -- one of the two Democratic senators from the state of Connecticut.

Senator, it's good to see you.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D-CT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Aaron, good to be with you.

BROWN: This is a course of action that you long believed was necessary, that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that military force, if necessary, should be used. What are your thoughts tonight?

LIEBERMAN: Well, my thoughts, obviously, are with the American military who are there, hoping and praying for their success, right now hoping that this attempt at decapitation was successful, because, after all is said and done, this is all about one evil dictator who possesses brutal weapons, with which he will threaten and hurt a lot of people, including a lot of Americans, unless we take them away from him.

I understand the odds against that decapitation working, but it might. And, if it does, all of us, including the Iraqi people, are going to be very fortunate.

BROWN: The theory here, obviously, is, if you take out Saddam Hussein, or if you take out the leadership, then the military folds, the resistance disappears, and the Americans and the Brits walk in, essentially, into Iraq, into Baghdad, go about their business. Is that -- one -- not necessarily expected to play out that way.

LIEBERMAN: Well, that would be the optimal situation.

And it's not a fantasy, it seems to me, because it's clear, one, that Saddam has ruled by fear and has killed any number of people under him, himself, who have shown some disloyalty. So, if it becomes clear that he is gone, then you have to ask, what is the motivation for all those in the Iraqi military to continue to want to fight us? We're offering them a better way and a better life.

And, obviously, our military will act cautiously. I'm very interested in the reports that we just heard that Reuters was saying that -- what appears to be American military has taken over some of the state radio in Baghdad. And I do want to say that our military is going at this with an extraordinary combination of information technology, telecommunications skill, intelligence, and high-tech weapons, and, of course, the most skilled fighting men and women in the history of the world.

So we've got a lot going for us.

BROWN: Senator Lieberman, do you ever think this might have been you who had to be in the White House with a president, that these are decisions you might have had to make? Do you ever think about such things? LIEBERMAN: I do occasionally think about such things.

But tonight is one of those nights, I think, in which we're all standing shoulder-to-shoulder. President Bush is a Republican. I'm a Democrat. We ran against him last time. I'm running. I'm seeking the office he holds now. But, tonight, there's not an inch of distance between us. We're standing together behind the American men and women in uniform, confident that they're going to achieve the victory that our security demands and the world's security demands.

And I do want to add this word. What we are doing here is not only in the interests of the safety of the American people, because, believe me, Saddam Hussein would have used these weapons against us eventually or given them to terrorists who would have. But this is -- what we are doing here, in overthrowing Saddam and removing those weapons of mass destruction, taking them into our control, is good for the security of every nation in the world.

And it is a task we are taking on. It is not a selfish task. It is a task of high justice and necessity and I'd say idealism in the best tradition of American principles and patriotism. And I'm proud and just grateful that we have the kind of fighting force that we have over there. We're going to win this.

BROWN: Senator, I don't think anybody, I suspect, on the planet doubts that the American forces will overwhelm, ultimately, the Iraqis and win this. It is a complicated process that comes after, putting Iraq together.

It's always good to talk to you, sir, Senator Joe Lieberman.

LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Aaron,.

BROWN: With us this evening from Washington.

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