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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 12:17 GMT
Main attack still to come

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent

The war in Iraq began with a US air strike against what the Pentagon calls "a target of opportunity" in the Baghdad area.

This was not so much a false start as a preliminary operation - a chance seized to attack leadership targets in the hope of killing senior Iraqi commanders, perhaps even Saddam Hussein himself.

F-117 Stealth fighter
Attacks were carried out by Stealth fighters
That last goal may well have failed, but it is clear that there was no intention to begin full-scale hostilities overnight.

Nobody knows the timing of the main US-British assault - which President Bush has called "a broad and concerted campaign".

Mr Bush has sought to play down expectations of a quick victory with few casualties, warning that the battles in the days ahead could be longer and more difficult than some predict.

That is a sober and probably realistic assessment.

While the US war plan has been intricately choreographed, much could still go wrong.

There can be no guarantee that the Iraqi forces and President Saddam Hussein himself will operate according to the script that has been assigned to them.

Reports of sporadic Iraqi missile attacks into Kuwait underline that the Iraqis too could still have a few surprises up their sleeves.

Improvised attack

But the early attacks do serve to headline the main target of the campaign - the Iraqi regime itself.

Sources at the CENTCOM headquarters here in Qatar indicate that five key Iraqi commanders, including possibly Saddam Hussein himself, were thought to be at one of the locations hit.

The attack appears to have been carried out by F-117 Stealth fighters. But cruise missiles were also fired from four US navy warships and two submarines.

The attacks would have to have been improvised and part preplanned.

The intelligence had to be acted upon quickly, but it is clear that the F-117s were probably already in the air, loitering beyond the air defences of central Iraq, ready to move in if required.

We are still expecting the main assault - probably a closely co-ordinated air and land operation - to begin during the hours of darkness.

Friday night could be the night, but then again it may not.

And it is always possible that some Iraqi action could prompt General Tommy Franks, the overall US commander, to unleash the campaign of "shock and awe" that has been widely predicted.

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