Iraq war diary: 20 March, 2003

To mark the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq war, I am re-posting diary entries that I wrote at the time for the Guardian's website. They are posted here day by day and the full collection can be found here

20 March 2003: 

It's begun. Well, sort of ... but more with a whimper than a bang. Last night's deadline for Saddam Hussein to flee Iraq came and went, and at first nothing happened. For almost two hours, CNN's cameras – fixed on the roof of the information ministry in Baghdad – showed undramatic scenes of traffic lights changing in the street below and occasional vehicles passing.

Shortly before 0300 GMT, there were flashes in the distance, accompanied by anti-aircraft fire from the Iraqis – though correspondents on the ground heard no planes. There was also a brief flurry of excitement when someone claimed the Americans had taken over the main Iraqi radio station but others who tuned in to listen found everything normal.

It turned out that President George Bush had not really meant to start the war last night but changed his mind when a "target of opportunity" turned up. It appears that US military intelligence thought they knew where Saddam Hussein was, along with other members of his regime, and proposed a "decapitation strike". If successful, this would have brought the war to a halt even before it had properly got under way.

The assassination plan was presented to Mr Bush at a four-hour meeting which ended at 0020 GMT – just in time for the president to have what the White House described as a "relaxing dinner" with his wife. On the way to dinner, Mr Bush told his speechwriter to get busy.

At 0315 GMT he appeared on television to announce that "coalition" forces were in the early stages of military operations against selective targets. Every effort would be made, he said, to show respect for Iraqi citizens, for the country's "great civilisation" and its religious faiths.

But there would be no half-measures, he warned. "We will accept no outcome but victory."

With these words, according to CNN, Mr Bush went straight to bed.

CNN also promised a live statement from Tony Blair at 0330 GMT, but if the British prime minister did wake up to echo his master's voice, CNN didn't bother to show it.

Details of last night's "decapitation strike" are still sketchy, but it seems they targeted two sites on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. More than 40 satellite-guided cruise missiles were reportedly used, mainly launched from ships and submarines. A number of F-117 stealth fighter-bombers also took part.

The Pentagon later released video clips, filmed in the dark, showing flashes and puffs of smoke as cruise missiles blasted off from a warship. These historic pictures, a CNN reporter enthused, had been transmitted back to Washington by the technological miracle of email.

According to the Iraqi authorities, 10 people died in the attack last night – though Saddam Hussein was apparently not among them.

One of the CNN's armchair generals pointed out that decapitation strikes rarely succeed. But he added that it would still be "very disconcerting" for Saddam, who would now be wondering if someone inside the regime was giving the US information as to his whereabouts.

That, of course, depends on what the missiles actually hit. If US intelligence about the target of opportunity was as inaccurate as it appears, Saddam is probably feeling rather relieved.

Some experts see last night's assassination attempt as part of a calculated psychological war, which includes the rumours circulated yesterday that Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, had either defected or been killed.

Such things are liable to damage the regime's morale if people start to believe them, and yesterday Mr Aziz was forced to call a hasty press conference in order to prove he was still alive.

Today, Iraq responded to the "decapitation strike" with a radio message from Saddam's son, Udai, followed by the information minister who told listeners "victory is certain, certain, certain", and finally a TV appearance by Saddam Hussein (or at least someone looking very much like him). He seemed to have acquired a new pair of spectacles for the occasion, with impressively thick black rims.

Latest word from the US is that the main "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad is still some hours away – probably after nightfall this evening.

President Bush's diary for the next 24 hours is clear of official engagements, except for another dinner – not with his wife this time, but with the president of Cameroon.

Weather in Baghdad today: mild, with more sun than clouds. Tonight: broken clouds, cool.

Posted by Brian Whitaker 
Wednesday, 20 March 2013