Opportunity Strikes

Opportunity Strikes

Opportunity Strikes

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 20 2003 6:59 AM

Opportunity Strikes

Everybody banners the beginning of the war, which consisted of limited cruise-missile and stealth-fighter strikes against "targets of opportunity"—apparently some locales where fresh intel suggested Saddam and top deputies were hiding. (So much for that: Saddam appeared on TV three hours after the attack, complaining about the "criminal little Bush." It probably wasn't recorded earlier: Saddam looked shaken and referred to today's date.) "Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit duration is to apply decisive force," announced President Bush just after the strikes began. "We will accept no outcome but victory."

According to early-morning  wire reports, Iraq launched a couple of Scud-like missiles at U.S. troops in Kuwait. Neither hit and neither appeared to be carrying chemical agents. Except for a few special ops folks, U.S.-led troops have not crossed the border yet.

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Everybody notes that the administration had been planning on waiting and launching a much larger salvo Thursday, but decided to pre-empt that when some juicy targets presented themselves. The Washington Post has the skinny: At about 4 p.m. EST, CIA Director George Tenet busted into the Oval Office and told the president that they had a fix on Saddam, who was allegedly sleeping in some private house in Baghdad. Top administration officials met for three hours—which, despite how it's portrayed by the Post, sounds like a relatively long time, no?—"tore up" their previous plans, and ordered the attack. Three hours after the order, explosions hit southern Baghdad. "It was a fairly singular strike," said one official. Reports from Baghdad say that there were explosions in various parts of town. (Slate's man in Baghdad, Nate Thayer, says missiles hit an oil refinery.)

As everybody reports, the U.S. appears to have snagged control of Iraqi state radio. Immediately after the strikes began, a voice told listeners, "This is the day you have been waiting for."

The Post's "fix on Saddam" bit was written by Barton Gellman and Dana Priest. Gellman then pulls overtime and reports in a second Page One piece that the U.S. has gotten good leads on the locations of chemical weapons from Iraqi diplomats/spies in various countries who were summoned by U.S. officials and given a choice: Either they could spill or be expelled back to Baghdad, where, one official helpfully explained, "they'll be putting themselves and their families at the mercy of the new Iraqi government." (The Post says the operation has been a "top-secret" project. If so, the White House might want to launch a leak hunt: The New York Times said a few weeks ago that the publicly reported expulsions were meant to flip agents.)

A piece stuffed inside the Post reminds that while Saddam probably has chemical weapons and might want to fire them off, he would be "hard-pressed to use them against invading troops." That's because inspectors have likely destroyed most of the missiles capable of delivering them. (Though apparently not the ones just tossed into Kuwait.) And to make chemical attacks pack a real punch, Saddam would have to amass lots of artillery, a big fat target for U.S. planes.

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The NYT's John Burns, still in Baghdad, warns that while most Iraqis seem to be psyched that Americans are heading in, "for some people here, America truly is the Great Satan." (NYT HQ has told Burns to leave, but according to the Post's Howard Kurtz, he hasn't been able to because Iraqi officials are trying to shake him down.)

Burns (and if you only have time to read one dispatch from Baghdad read his) also sees signs that the Iraqi government is in a state of "advanced meltdown." Government minders assigned just days ago have now vamoosed. There are also reports of Iraqi officers in the north deserting to Kurdish fighters. Finally, Burns picks on something others have noticed as well: The defensive positions in Baghdad seem chumpy, mostly waist-high ditches and clumps of sandbags. The Post has a nice photo of one. But the Post also suggests that these images could be misleading since Saddam's tougher troops have positioned themselves around the city, not inside it where the journalists are.

Everybody notes that after much hemming and hawing, Turkey's ruling party has now decided not to ask its parliament to consider allowing U.S troops in or to grant use of Turkish airbases, or even refueling rights. Instead, the parliament will vote on whether to give overflight rights, less than the U.S. was hoping for even yesterday.

Most of the papers catch news that about 1,000 U.S. soldiers have raided a series of villages in Afghanistan, looking for al-Qaida types. The operation, which apparently has included airstrikes, is the largest since last year's Operation Anaconda. In terms of timing, the Wall Street Journal notes that the raid has been planned for "several weeks"—though the paper asserts that it "doesn't appear" to have been timed to the Iraq action. 

USA Today looks at some of the kickoff speeches U.S. commanders gave their troops. "You will contribute in a magnificent rewriting of history," said the U.S.S. Constellation's commander, who then broadcast Queen's "We Will Rock You."

With all the fears about how the war might go, people should read today's NYT op-ed by war pundit Anthony Cordesman. He says that plenty of worst-case scenarios can happen  but explains in detail why most of them probably won't: Chemical weapons probably wouldn't kill many troops (see above); burning the oil fields would impair Iraqi troops more than it would GIs; and as for the widely cited fear that Saddam will blow dams and create floods along the Euphrates, tanks could just drive around them.