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US: Initial Attack Targeted Senior Iraqi Leadership Compound - 2003-03-20

The top U.S. defense official says the initial air and missile attack on Baghdad early Thursday struck what he calls a "senior Iraqi leadership compound." But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not say whether Saddam Hussein survived the attack.

Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington that U.S. officials are now assessing the extent of the damage to a senior Iraqi leadership compound hit by cruise missiles and stealth bombers.

Mr. Rumsfeld also says there are indications that the Iraqis have set fire to some oil wells in southern Iraq and he had this warning for Iraqi troops. "The Iraqi soldiers and officers must ask themselves whether they want to die fighting for a doomed regime, or do they want to survive, help the Iraqi people in the liberation of their country and play a role in a new, free Iraq," he said.

Sometime after the initial attack, Iraqi television broadcast a speech by Saddam Hussein in which he said Iraq would emerge victorious.

But Secretary Rumsfeld says there is debate among U.S. officials as to whether it was Saddam Hussein on television or a so-called "double." There is also a question about whether the message was live or pre-recorded.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis launched missiles into northern Kuwait where U.S. and British troops are poised for a ground invasion. No casualties were reported as a result of the Iraqi attack but it did send a scare through the troops that a chemical or biological attack may have been under way.

VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu joined U.S. Army troops in donning a gas mask and a protective suit. "I was out in the compound area and I did hear a boom," she said. "I didn't know what it was, and about a minute later, I heard someone screaming, 'Gas, gas, gas!' "

The attack did not involve chemical or biological weapons. Coalition officials said at least one of the Iraqi missiles was knocked out of the sky by U.S. Patriot missiles.

Back in Washington, opposition Democrats are joining Republicans in rallying behind the troops. Among them is Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, whose criticism of the president for a failure of diplomacy earlier in the week brought sharp condemnation from Republicans. "They are making a more peaceful world for all of us," said Senator Daschle. "History will long remember their service. They have our support, our devotion and our gratitude."

The attack on Iraq has drawn condemnation from Russia, China, Germany and France.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters that he wished the Bush administration had given diplomacy more time. "Perhaps if we had persevered a little longer, Iraq could yet have been disarmed peacefully or, if not, the world could have taken action to solve this problem by a collective decision, endowing it with greater legitimacy and therefore commanding wider support than is the case now," said Mr. Annan.

There was support for the U.S. position as well. Britain, Spain, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Australia offered support and said the attack was justified.