WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed the start of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" Thursday and warned the coming war will be far more furious than anything that has come before.
"What will follow will not be a repeat of any other conflict. It will be of a force and scope and scale that has been beyond what has been seen before. The Iraqi soldiers and officers must ask themselves whether they want to die fighting for a doomed regime," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing.
A United Press International reporter traveling with the U.S. Marines confirmed Thursday that elements of the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, Calif., had entered Iraq. They were meeting little resistance as they headed to protect infrastructure components in Iraq before Iraqi troops could destroy them.
Air strikes continued in Baghdad Thursday, but officials said the main attack featuring some 3,000 precision bombs -- meant to inspire "shock and awe" in the hearts of the Iraqi military to cause a quick surrender -- has not yet been launched but could begin at any time.
UPI in Baghdad reported that Iraqi anti-aircraft guns could be heard firing in the city. Their use does not necessarily indicate an air raid but could simply be a reaction from nervous troops or false alarms from Iraqi air defense radars.
Iraqi TV reported 72 missiles had been fired at Baghdad Thursday, according to CNN.
Also Thursday, Iraq launched at least two tactical ballistic missiles into Kuwait at 12:24 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. local time. Both were intercepted and destroyed by the upgraded Patriot PAC-3 missile defense system. There were no casualties reported.
An unidentified missile struck Camp Commando in Kuwait about two hours earlier, forcing British and American Marines to don chemical protective gear. There were no reported casualties and no release of chemical munitions, according to U.S. Central Command.
The Turkish parliament approved giving the United States use of its airspace Thursday, giving it an important northern air route into the country. Turkey also approved moving its own troops across the border into northern Iraq to block the flow of refugees.
The war officially began Wednesday with at least 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched and some F-117s dropped 2,000-pound bombs at key targets in Baghdad and south of the city.
The targets included a Baghdad residence intelligence officials believed to be temporarily occupied by "senior Iraqi leadership." Government officials said Thursday night that they do not yet have an assessment of the success of that strike.
Rumsfeld would not confirm whether the intended target was Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein or his sons.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said targeting senior leaders is standard military procedure.
"Regime leadership command and control is a legitimate target in any conflict, and that was the target that was struck last night," Myers said.
Rumsfeld confirmed the strike was a last-minute change to the war plan to take advantage of fast-moving intelligence.
"The minute things start, one has to take account of the realities that you find in the world. And that is what was done last evening," Rumsfeld said.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Saddam was the intended target. British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon said Thursday that the officials targeted "are at the very heart of Iraq's command and control system, responsible for directing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
Shortly after the strike, Iraqi TV aired a videotape purported to be of Saddam Hussein addressing the nation live. Rumsfeld said the U.S. government is investigating the authenticity of the tape. The speaker on the tape was wearing thick eyeglasses and looked pale and bloated. He made no direct reference to the strikes, raising the possibility that it was pre-recorded or a body double, a Pentagon official said.
Rumsfeld said Iraqi forces may have set fire to "three or four" oil wells in southern Iraq.
A U.S. CH-53 helicopter carrying Special Forces soldiers crashed in the desert Thursday and was destroyed by U.S. forces, a senior defense official said. He would not identify the location because the Iraqi military had not yet located the crash site. There were no reported U.S. casualties, but the official cautioned that any casualty reports could take hours to reach the Pentagon.
The Navy said Thursday that four surface ships and two submarines fired the first Tomahawk cruise missiles of the battle from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
The submarines participating were the USS Cheyenne and the USS Montpelier. The Navy would not identify their location.
The ships in the Red Sea were the USS Donald Cook guided missile destroyer and the USS Cowpens cruiser. The destroyer USS Milius and the cruiser USS Bunker Hill cruiser fired from the Arabian Gulf.
Also Thursday, as many as several thousand U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd airborne division in Afghanistan began a fresh assault against al-Qaida and Taliban hideouts in the mountains southeast of Kandahar.
Rumsfeld and Myers said the concurrence of the operations was a coincidence, and not meant to demonstrate the United States can carry out both a war in Iraq and in Afghanistan without diminishing either effort, as critics of the war have charged.
The operation in Iraq "isn't taking anything away from the war against al-Qaida. And indeed the pressure will be helpful because there have been and are al-Qaida in that country," he said.
United Nations, U.S. Embassy and American contractors in Afghanistan have been encouraged to stay in their residences for the next two to three days. American intelligence officials fear Taliban and al-Qaida might launch terrorist attacks to capitalize on anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, a U.S. government contractor in Kabul told UPI.
Pentagon officials say the coalition publicly supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq has now grown to 43.
"That does not include a large number of other countries that are helping in very important ways but some of which prefer to do so privately at this time," Rumsfeld said. "Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991."
While the number of those countries offering support is more than the 30 Gulf War coalition countries, their contributions are significantly less. There were more than 250,000 non-U.S. troops fighting in the 1991 war and coalition countries contributed more than $50 billion to the effort. Only the United Kingdom and Australia publicly acknowledge providing troops for this war -- 45,000 and 2,000, respectively.
While the Gulf War coalition included most NATO members and many Middle Eastern countries, the new "coalition of the willing" is a motley crew of Australia, most of Eastern Europe, a few Western European powers, a handful of Latin American and African nations and several Polynesian archipelagos.
Rumsfeld said U.S. government propaganda efforts -- comprising more than 17 million leaflets dropped over southern Iraq since the beginning of the year and steady radio broadcasts, in addition to direct e-mail messages to Iraqi soldiers and citizens -- are having the desired effect of persuading them they are better off not fighting U.S. forces.
"We continue to feel that there's no need for a broader conflict if the Iraqi leaders act to save themselves and to prevent such further conflict," he said. "We have broad and deep evidence that suggests that there are people going through that decision-making process throughout that country today, and that is a good thing."
Rumsfeld reiterated the cautions expressed in those messages: that soldiers should follow U.S. orders and procedures to surrender peacefully; the Iraqi people should not go to work and should avoid military targets for their own safety; and they should not flee across borders as there will be refugee camps and food inside the country. Finally, he said, Iraqi forces that destroy dams and bridges, set fire to oil wells, or use chemical or biological weapons will be dealt with harshly.
"Following such orders would be to commit crimes against the Iraqi people. See those orders for what they are -- the last desperate gasp of a dying regime. Those who follow orders to commit such crimes will be found and they will be punished," Rumsfeld said.
"To the Iraqi people, let me say that the day of your liberation will soon be at hand," Rumsfeld said.
An image of an old "operational security" poster was displayed on a video screen near the podium at which Rumsfeld and Myers spoke. It depicted a pig-tailed little girl clutching a picture of her uniformed father, beseeching people with sensitive military information not to talk let they get her "daddy" killed.
It was a message Rumsfeld was keen to impart to his Pentagon audience.
"There is no excuse for anyone revealing sensitive information that will almost certainly put the lives of men and women in uniform at risk," he said. "At a time when coalition forces are poised for battle, any compromise of classified information that gives the enemy knowledge of the positions of our forces or the plans or the timing of future operations can result in the death of coalition servicemen and -women. Don't do it."
Pentagon officials said to maintain as much ambiguity and tactical surprise as possible they will not be commenting on or confirming operational details unless they are obvious to the casual observer.
More than 500 reporters have been embedded with American combat forces, nearly half of them with Marine units.