GULF WAR 2: STEALTH BOMBERS IN PRECISION ATTACK ON BAGHDAD: STRIKE AT SADDAM; 40 Cruise Missiles Fired in Bid to Kill Iraqi Leader after Intelligence Tip-Off
Byline: RICHARD WALLACE in Washington and BOB ROBERTS at US Central Command, Qatar
FORTY Cruise missiles pounded Baghdad just before dawn today as America launched a surprise attack in an attempt to wipe out Saddam Hussein.
Jets roared over the city as air raid sirens blared and yellow and white anti-aircraft tracers raked the sky.
One explosion raised a huge fireball in the south of the city.
The same target appeared to have been hit three or four times.
The terrifying attack was later described by Pentagon sources as a "decapitation attempt to take out the Iraqi leadership."
It had been deliberately targeted on Saddam after a tip-off from CIA intelligence sources.
One official said: "If he is dead it will save an awful lot of bloodshed."
It is believed the decision to carry out the surgical strike was taken after a four-hour meeting just 40 minutes before the deadline for war expired.
The Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
They have a range of 700 miles and are designed to pierce command bunkers and heavily protected military HQs.
Moments after the attack, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in Washington: "The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun."
And President Bush went on TV to announce the biggest pre-emptive strike in American history.
The action began 90 minutes after the deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq had passed.
And it came so suddenly that even British military chiefs were taken by surprise.
A British spokesman at the central command post Camp As Sayliyah admitted: "We were not expecting it."
Within hours, there were unconfirmed reports that two Iraqi divisions, the 11th and 51st, were preparing to surrender.
It was also claimed hundreds of soldiers had heeded warnings from American leafleting campaigns to park their cars in military bases and take cover inside.
More than 250,000 British and US troops backed by 1,000 warplanes were already in attack position when the first missiles were fired.
At Central Command in the Qatari desert US and UK forces were on full alert as American F18 warplanes patrolled overhead.
US Commander General Tommy Franks and his UK equivalent Air Marshal Brian Burridge were in their control room studying satellite images and reconnaissance photos.
But a senior military source said it may be some time before a full-scale conflict began.
"There will be some people who will be getting over-excited," he added. But we will remain calm."
British commanders are expecting a series of precision strikes at specific targets before any massive aerial bombardment. Former US Secretary of defence William Cohen said that there were indications that there were traitors in Saddam's camp, tipping off the allies about his movements.
"That would be very worrying for him," he said.
As expected, Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay defied the ultimatum to quit the country by 4am local time (0100 GMT) despite a last-minute offer of asylum from Bahrain.
Mr Bush was given the news as he dined with wife Laura.
Earlier, he signed off battle orders leaving it up to US commanders when to launch the second Gulf War in 12 years.
Tony Blair was told of the American plans to bring forward the start of the war by launching the missile strike. …