Byline: EMMA SNODGRASS
AS DAWN broke in Iraq, more than 40 cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, in a bold bid to topple Saddam Hussein.
Air raid sirens, followed by a series of explosions, were heard as cruise missiles and F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter bombers armed with precision bombs launched a "decapitation exercise" aimed directly at the Iraqi leadership.
The surprise attacks came 90 minutes after President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq had passed.
It was not the huge aerial attack that had been predicted, but was a surprise pre-emptive strike aimed at Saddam and his inner circle and followed "last minute" intelligence.
Military experts believe that if Saddam and his chief henchmen are killed, few in the ruling Ba'ath party will have the stomach to continue a fight they do not expect to win.
A quick surrender would spare the nearly 300,000 British and American troops poised to invade Iraq from battle and dramatically reduce the civilian casualties and destruction of Iraqi infrastructure the war is expected to cause.
Elite US Delta Force commandos are believed to be hunting down Saddam in an attempt to bring a swift conclusion to the war.
In the first British comment on the start of the war, Downing Street revealed that the attacks had been brought forward.
A spokesman said: "The Prime Minister was informed shortly after midnight that attacks on a limited number of command and control targets was being brought forward."
The spokesman added: "As regards the involvement of British forces, he will set out the position in due course."
A British military source at US Central Command in the Qatar desert said: "These air strikes were taking advantage of a window of opportunity based on intelligence reports."
Forty-five minutes after the attacks began, President Bush delivered a live television address.
Iraqi television went off air shortly after the attacks began and started broadcasting patriotic pictures.
At 5.30am UK time, Iraqi television broadcast what it claimed to be a live address from Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi people repeatedly urging them to "use their swords" against the enemy. …