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U.S. launches cruise missiles at Saddam

Saddam denounces attack as 'criminal'

"Coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," Bush said.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. and coalition forces launched missiles and bombs at targets in Iraq as Thursday morning dawned in Baghdad, including a "decapitation attack" aimed at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and other top members of the country's leadership.

President Bush announced the start of the military campaign against Iraq shortly afterward in a televised address from the White House.

"American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," Bush said. (Full story)

Administration sources said the decision to strike came after a nearly four-hour meeting in the Oval Office in which CIA Director George Tenet and Pentagon officials told Bush they could lose the "target of opportunity" if they didn't act quickly; Bush then gave the green light.

Hours later, a defiant Saddam wearing a military uniform appeared on Iraqi television to denounce the U.S.-led military campaign as "criminal" and to say his countrymen would be victorious.

"We pledge that we will confront the invaders," he said, adding Iraqi resistance would cause the coalition to "lose any hope in accomplishing what they were driven to by the criminal Zionists and others with their agendas."

In his taped speech, Saddam gave Thursday's date, March 20, as a sign it was recorded after the coalition attack. He ended his message by saying, "Long live jihad and long live Palestine." (Full story)

In New York, Iraq Ambassador to the United Nations Mohammed Aldouri said, "It seems that the war of aggression against my country has started."

He called the the military action "a violation of international law" and said he would ask the United Nations and the Security Council Thursday to hold allied forces accountable for the attacks on Iraq.

More than 40 satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, military officials said. F117 stealth fighters, which carry two 2,000-pound bombs apiece, also were involved in the strikes, though apparently on a target other than Saddam.

Air raid sirens were heard in Baghdad at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday (9:30 p.m. Wednesday ET) about 90 minutes after the U.S. deadline for Saddam to step down or face a U.S.-led military attack.

In his four-minute announcement from the Oval Office, Bush said the military campaign, supported by 35 nations, would make efforts to spare Iraqi civilians. But he made it clear the U.S. military planned to use its full might in the war.

"This will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome except victory," he said.

The president's address came at 10:15 p.m., about two hours and 15 minutes after the expiration of the deadline. (Transcript)

The United States and Britain have massed nearly 300,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region.

In other developments:

• An early morning Iraqi radio message from a representative of Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, said: "God protect us from foreign aggressors. God give us patience. God protect our leader."

• Seventeen Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. troops Wednesday. They were believed to be the first of their countrymen to give up -- a move the U.S. Air Force has been actively encouraging by showering the Iraqi landscape with more than 2 million leaflets in anticipation of a ground war. (Full story)

• Iraq is unlikely to use chemical or biological weapons to defend itself from a U.S.-led invasion because world opinion would turn against it, chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said Wednesday. "Saddam Hussein has certainly figured himself to be a sort of emperor of Mesopotamia, and the leader of the Arab world," Blix said. "So I think he very likely cares very much about his reputation." (Full story)

• The king of the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain offered "safe exile" to Saddam, saying he hopes the Iraqi leader "would seriously consider this offer before the onset of war," the government-run Bahrain News Agency said Wednesday. (Full story)

A cruise missile launches from the USS Donald Cook in the Red Sea.
A cruise missile launches from the USS Donald Cook in the Red Sea.

• Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Iraq is fully responsible for the current crisis in the Middle East, the Kuwait News Agency said.

• Chaos at the Kuwait City International Airport early Thursday led officials there to close roads into the airport and allow in only employees and ticket-holders, officials said. They also said they would not let anyone else in until the situation calmed down. Video footage of the airport terminal showed it packed with people, and crowds pushed up against ticket counters.

• Bush notified Congress on Wednesday he has made a determination that diplomacy will not work to disarm Saddam -- a condition required under a resolution approved by lawmakers in October authorizing the use of force against Iraq. (Bush's day, text of Bush letter to Congress)

• Kurds in northern Iraq were fleeing towns and retreating to mountain areas in anticipation of war, and in the southern region dozens of Iraqi dhows were moving through the Straits of Hormuz and out of the Persian Gulf. Baghdad residents have started fleeing the capital. (Mood in Baghdad)

• Turkey's parliament is expected to vote Thursday on the government's request to allow U.S. warplanes to fly over Turkey. But the government will not seek a vote on a U.S. request to use Turkish bases for about 62,000 troops to move against Iraq from the north.

• Both houses of Italy's parliament Wednesday authorized the government to offer the U.S.-led coalition use of Italian air space and military bases in a conflict with Iraq, but the approval did not include allowing departure points for direct attacks. (Full story)

CNN correspondents Ryan Chilcote, John King and Barbara Starr contributed to this report. For latest developments, see's Iraq Tracker.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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