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Byline: RICHARD WALLACE US Editor in Washington

THE call came just after 8pm. George Bush apologised to his wife Laura and left the table where they were having their chicken pie dinner.

He picked up the phone extension in the living room next door and heard Chief of Staff Andy Card make it official. Card said: "Mr President, there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein has left the country."

The Iraqi tyrant had made his final act of defiance. Zero hour had arrived. Mr Bush thanked his trusted aide, returned to the table and finished his meal.

Later, just seconds before he went on TV to tell the world war had started, he vigorously pumped his fist and declared: "I feel good." The extraordinary gesture was in stark contrast to the furrowed brow and look of concern he adopted for the subsequent broadcast.

Bush had already set the wheels of war in motion hours earlier when he ripped up long-standing battle plans.

He decided to bring forward Operation Iraqi Freedom by nearly two days after spy chiefs told him agents had a firm fix on Saddam Hussein's location.

The president saw a chance to end the war with one shot when CIA chief George Tenet said they had the tyrant and five of his key generals in their sights in a bunker below a house in southern Baghdad.

The decision to make a "decapitation strike" came after a four-hour meeting where aides argued fiercely over whether to stick to the original strategy.

Saddam and others in "the most senior levels of the Iraqi leadership", ordinarily among the most elusive of men, had unexpectedly fallen under US surveillance at an underground government complex.

Defence chief Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday: "We had very good intelligence it was senior Iraqi leadership compound.

"A war plan is something that's developed before things start. The minute things start you have to take account of the realities that you find in the world. That was what was done last evening.

"The days of the Saddam regime are numbered. There is no need for a broader conflict if Iraq's leaders act to save themselves and to prevent further conflict."

Bush grabbed "the target of opportunity" to hit Saddam after he was advised by Tenet they may not get a second one.

Surveillance satellites were said to have picked up mobile phone signals linked straight to the dictator.

There were also reports the CIA had deliberately planted a rumour that deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had fled or been killed hours before the attack in order to flush him out into the open.

Aziz is a key aide to Saddam and it is believed spy chiefs were able to track him after he called a press conference to reassure people he was alive.

Bush gave the go-ahead at 6.30pm (11.30pm GMT) - 50 minutes before the meeting broke up.

At 7.20pm (12.20am GMT) he went to see his chief speechwriter Michael Gerson to tell him there would be an announcement later.

At 9.33pm (2.33am GMT) - 5.33am in Iraq - the first shots hit a Baghdad house. More than 40 satellite-guided Tomahawk Cruise missiles were launched at Iraq leadership targets from six ships including the USS Donald Cook in the Red Sea and the USS Bunker Hill. A submarine also joined the attack.

Two F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters dropped two 2,000lb bunker buster bombs on targets.

At 10.15pm (3.15am GMT) Bush addressed the nation. He said: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war."

His earlier "I feel good" statement, a phrase hijacked from soul legend James Brown, angered some US officials.

The president, clutching a copy of his speech, uttered the words to an aide standing outside the Oval Office 60 seconds before he was due on air. TV pictures were already showing flashes of explosions in the Baghdad dawn.

One senior opposition US lawmaker called the statement "hideously inappropriate".

He added: "The president is taking us to war and I'm afraid his true boorish colours came through yet again."

Despite his sombre mood on air, Mr Bush was privately upbeat.

An aide admitted: "He was excited about getting on with the job. There's been months of delays and now the hour is at hand. The president wants Saddam gone, and now we're going to do it."

The backdrop for the speech had been carefully prepared. The presidential flag over Bush's shoulder was folded in such a way that the quiver of arrows could be seen in the eagle's clenched talon.

There was a picture of Laura with one of their dogs and a portrait of twin daughters Jenna and Barbara - to stress concern for the families of servicemen in the Gulf.

His words were deliberately ponderous - aides are touchy over the his international reputation as a gun-toting cowboy.

He spoke of "the early stages of military operations" as if delivering a weather forecast.

No historic phrases or instant aphorisms, but clearly his dull monotone disguised a certain glee that the time for battle was at hand.

In Baghdad intelligence suggested Saddam had survived the attack on his life.

But there was evidence he had lost communications with his battle commanders. One official said: "We are seeing no co-ordinated response to our first attack.

"It's little things here and there. Some commanders are hunkering down while others are launching small attacks and setting fires.

"It is significant there is a lack of co-ordination and significant resistance."

The Iraqi government said the assault hit empty media and customs buildings and civilian suburbs.

Three hours later Saddam - or someone purporting to be him - made a TV appearance to denounce "little Bush". Spy chiefs said it could have been video taped earlier or filmed using a body double of the leader.

Beyond mentioning the date, the rambling speech made no specific reference to the military strike. Saddam said: "To the great Iraqi people, the brave strugglers, to the heroic armed forces. We pledge to you we will fight the invaders. They will be defeated."

Information minister Mohammed Saeed Sahaf introduced the dictator's TV speech and declared a jihad (holy war) had begun.

He said: "This is a good proof that the US are criminals and believing in assassination. I think they should be condemned. We will crush this aggression."

Iraq last night insisted Saddam was still alive and screened pictures of him sitting around a table with four senior ministers discussing their response to the US assault.


OPEN FIRE: First cruise missile is launched from USS Bunker Hill situated in Persian Gulf to begin yesterday's raid on Baghdad; TARGET: US tried to kill Saddam; BATTLE STATIONS: Mr Bush announces war has begun in a TV address from the Oval Office; ATTACK: Flashes of light over Baghdad, left, signal war. Stealth fighters patrol skies. Right, smoke billows above road after raid
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 21, 2003
Previous Article:Gulf War 2: Fear fills hearts as the warning cry is yelled: GAS! GAS! GAS!

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