Before Bush spoke, TV viewers saw initial attack

On rooftop in Baghdad, cameras captured strikes

War In Iraq

March 20, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

For most Americans, war was not announced last night by the president, or by the unmistakable trail of a major invasion, but by the televised streaks of light visible against the Baghdad skyline just shy of daybreak there.

Peter Arnett, that old Persian Gulf war hand, narrated the start for NBC News. It came heralded by air-raid sirens, and then came the explosions and the distinctive flare of anti-aircraft fire - a circle within a circle.

Tiny dots of light flashed in the distance as police cars sped across the otherwise motionless city.

The footage came from cameras shared by U.S. television networks that were arrayed atop the Iraqi Ministry of Information. It showed the tower of a mosque before a vista of the sprawling city - and projectiles sailing across the early dawn.

President Bush spoke a bit past 10:15 Eastern Time last night.

His very brief Oval Office speech, delivered in his now familiar gruff cadence, warned generally of the challenges involved in deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He said he was not seeking to wage war against Iraqi civilians, and cited support from 35 countries.

He made no mention of the diplomatic wrangling that dominated the world's attention for so many weeks. And, despite the seeming entreaties of news anchors, Bush didn't explain the night's events in any detail.

The networks had been awaiting that moment all day, with expectations heightened and then dashed as Bush's 8 p.m. deadline passed.

MSNBC's Deadline Clock ticked down, then expired uselessly with the appointed hour. Speculation on the air seemed to ease into assurance that no action would be taken in the immediate hours, as no word came.

But a bit after 9:30 p.m., NBC left its scheduled programming in favor of news, shortly followed by CBS and several minutes later by ABC.

The networks reported initially speculatively, and soon confirmed that the strikes targeted sites where Hussein and his senior aides might be found.

CBS anchor Dan Rather, while seeking insight from national security reporter David Martin, heard the reporter's phone ring and suggested he pick it up. It was probably a source with good information, Rather said.

"Originally, we didn't think anything would happen tonight," acknowledged ABC News' Chris Bury.

Yet what happened wasn't the long-promised "shock and awe" strategy - an overwhelming demonstration of strength to crush the resistance of the Iraqi military.

"We are in an odd in-between moment," said CNN anchor Aaron Brown. Despite American hopes that the Iraqi president would be killed by the strikes, a man who by all accounts appeared to be Hussein appeared, courtesy of Iraqi television, defiantly rallying his fellow Iraqis to arms and invoking the Palestinian fight against Israel.

He appeared shortly after 12:30 a.m. EST today, after the Iraqi minister of information read a statement denouncing the United States and its allies. The man presented as Hussein, atypically wearing glasses, was clad in dark beret, olive green cravat and drab military uniform with red-fringed epaulets.

"Those who fight evil in the world, peace be upon them," he said, according to the translator.

As Arnett had told viewers earlier last night, so much about the start of this war reminded him of the first gulf war.

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