WASHINGTON -- The launching of three medium-range Iraqi missiles in what turned out to be a test caught American intelligence agencies so completely by surprise early this month that some U.S. officials feared war was about to erupt in the Persian Gulf.
America's sophisticated satellite system failed to detect anything until the first missile had been in flight for six minutes and was only one minute from impact.
Officials previously had believed that Iraq could not carry out the several hours of fueling and other prelaunch preparations needed for such missile firings without detection by U.S. satellites and other sensors -- ostensibly in time for an American counterstrike before the Iraqi weapons could lift off.
In the test, however, the Iraqis completed all the preparations and even the first launch without being discovered.
Some experts say privately that the incident -- first reported by the Financial Times of London and confirmed by U.S. officials -- represents a significant intelligence failure. While some Pentagon and Bush administration officials dispute that assessment, one administration official admitted the firings "gave us pause."
"We had no advanced warning," he said.
But no one knew what the Iraqis were planning, and indications are that American intelligence was surprised not only by the launches but also by both the launching point and the direction in which the missiles were fired.
The nearness of war seemingly was confirmed this week by the chief U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, Joseph C. Wilson IV. He received an urgent telephone call the morning of Dec. 2 from the State Department in Washington, he said, informing him that "the balloon is going up -- this is no drill."
The warning apparently was flashed to Wilson soon after the launch of the first missile was detected.
The Dec. 2 missile launches were a surprise even though Iraq had openly warned airliners to keep out of its airspace after midnight the night before.
Iraq gave no reason, but on the strength of the warning, Israeli pilots were reportedly ordered to be in their cockpits. U.S. aircraft were also at a very high state of readiness and apparently would have retaliated if the missiles had been directed at U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.
British and other allied forces were on high alert too, according to European reports.