American missiles have hit the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, signalling the start of the US-led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein.
President George Bush delivered a live television address shortly after the bombings began, vowing to “disarm Iraq and to free its people”.
The attack was ordered two hours after a final 48-hour deadline expired for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq.
US sources say five key members of the Iraqi regime, including the Iraqi leader himself, were targeted in the first attacks.
The Iraqis say some non-military targets have been hit and a number of civilians wounded in Doura, a southern suburb of the capital.
The air strikes began at 0534 local time (0234 GMT). A short time later, Iraqi TV broadcast what it said was a live speech by Saddam Hussein. In it he said: “I don’t need to remind you what you should do to defend our country. “Let the unbelievers go to hell, you will be victorious, Iraqi people.”
President Bush played down hopes of an early victory. In his broadcast to the American people he warned the campaign “could be longer and more difficult than some predict”. He continued: “This will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory.”
“The dangers to our country and the world will be overcome. We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace. We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others.”
At 2200 GMT British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a live televised address to the nation.
He confirmed British troops were in action in Iraq. He said their purpose was to remove Saddam Hussein and disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
The attack has drawn international condemnation and brought demonstrators onto the streets in several countries.
Attempts to get a United Nations Security Council resolution backing a military campaign in Iraq were abandoned earlier in the week when it became clear the US still faced an uphill battle to get the majority it needed.
The French had been pushing for more time to allow Iraq to disarm and today President Jacques Chirac of France expressed regret at the launch of hostilities without UN backing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the military action was entirely unjustified, while China said the strike violated the United Nations charter. Anti-war demonstrations have taken place in cities in Greece, Egypt, Australia and Indonesia.
Courtesy BBC News
The Pentagon called the US air strike against Baghdad a “target of opportunity” – a chance to attack leadership targets in the hope of killing senior Iraqi commanders. It was not the launch of full-scale hostilities.
The attack was carried out by F-117 Stealth fighters, but cruise missiles were also fired from four US navy warships and two submarines.
The following day (21 March) the US and British launched a massive aerial assault on Baghdad in what the US called its “shock and awe” strategy. At the same time, ground forces were advancing into southern Iraq.
Iraqi forces resisted the American-led coalition troops until 9 April when a giant statue of the Iraqi leader was toppled by demonstrators in Baghdad but the man himself escaped into hiding.
On 15 April a first meeting was held to talk about a new regime in Iraq. The US formally handed over power to the Iraqis on 28 June 2004. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, tried by an Iraqi court, sentenced to death and hanged on 30 December 2006.