WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US and British troops moved into forward positions on Wednesday–ready to unleash a massive assault on Iraq as time ran out for President Saddam Hussein to avoid war by choosing exile.
President George W. Bush’s ultimatum for Saddam and his sons to leave the country expires at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT)–which is 4:00 a.m. on Thursday in Iraq. There was no sign Saddam would comply–despite a last-minute offer from Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to offer him asylum.
US and British troops moved into the demilitarized zone that straddles the Iraq-Kuwait border on Wednesday. The zone extends 3 miles (5 km) into Kuwait and 6 miles (10 km) into Iraq. Soldiers donned chemical suits at desert staging posts that were swept by fierce sand storms.
On aircraft carriers and at land bases–pilots prepared for what is expected to be one of the most ferocious aerial bombardmen’s in history.
Upward of 3,000 satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles will be unleashed from sea and air on targets vital to Saddam’s government to start to the war–officials said.
The strategy–dubbed "shock and awe” by the US military–is designed to destroy Saddam’s air defenses–remove his ability to command and control his forces while delivering such a severe psychological blow to Iraqi troops that many will be too stunned and demoralized to resist.
British and US aircraft dropped almost two million leaflets over southeastern Iraq urging Iraqi soldiers not to use weapons of mass destruction or torch oil wells–and advising them to lay down their weapons rather than die for a lost cause.
FEAR OF STREET FIGHTING
US planners’ biggest fears are that the Iraqis may use chemical weapons or that Saddam loyalists hole up in Baghdad and force invaders to conquer the city street by street and house by house.
Nearly 175,000 American and British troops were in northern Kuwait awaiting any order to sweep northward into Iraq to depose Saddam and rid the country of what Washington charges are huge stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Iraq denies it has such weapons.
At the United Nations–Russia–France and Germany voiced final objections to a war they–as well as millions of people around the world–had bitterly opposed and tried to prevent.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said war would spawn more terrorism. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said: "Germany emphatically rejects the impending war.” Still the German government guaranteed US troops the right to fly over its territory.
In Turkey–Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said his government was preparing to open its airspace to US warplanes but would not allow them access to air bases even for refueling. The decision means the debt-laden country will not receive $30 billion in proposed US gran’s and loans.
Bush–who could not win UN Security Council backing for the war–says he is leading a "coalition of the willing” of 45 nations. But only 30 were willing to make their support public and many were offering primarily symbolic backing. Essentially–the fighting coalition consists of around 250,000 US and 25,000 British troops.
BRACED FOR LOSSES
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer braced Americans for casualties. "It could be a matter of some duration–we do not know,” he said. "Americans have to be prepared for loss of life. Americans have to be prepared for the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein to protect the peace.”
Bush formally notified Congress on Tuesday that diplomatic or other peaceful means would not protect the United States against Iraq nor lead to the enforcement of UN deman’s that Iraq disarm,
US defense officials and private analysts say one of the first objectives of an invasion would be to overwhelm regular army units and take Basra–about 40 miles (65 km) from the Kuwait border and 340 miles (550 km) southeast of Baghdad.
Simultaneously–other forces will enter the north to seize control of crucial oil fields before they can be set aflame.
Leaflets have told Iraqi forces to leave their tanks with their turrets reversed and to abandon vehicles in the open while returning to barracks if they wanted to live.
Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln–Vice Admiral Timothy Kiting–commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet–prepared forces for the mission. "I think it very likely that within a couple of days jets are going to be going off the front of the USS Abraham Lincoln,” he said.
"If we go–the plans we have are unlike anything anyone has ever seen before,” Kiting told reporters–adding these would be based on "remarkable speed–breathtaking speed–agility–precision and persistence.”
Iraq’s information minister–Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf–said in Baghdad the invaders were facing "definite death.” Iraqi legislators vowed to die for their leader.
"We will all be martyrs defending Iraq,” parliament said in a letter to Saddam after an emergency session.
Bahrain offered Saddam sanctuary and a life with dignity to avert war but there was no expectation he would accept.
The UN aid official in charge of Iraq–Ramiro Lopez da Silva–said war would trigger a major humanitarian disaster in a country already crippled by more than a decade of sanctions.