- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

LONDON, March 20 (UPI) — The first salvo in the long-awaited and much anticipated war on Iraq was fired in the early hours of Thursday, instantly resonating on television screens around the world. But the only outward sign that anything was amiss in Baghdad was Saddam Hussein wearing eyeglasses.

Initial reports said that as many as 40 Tomahawk missiles were fired from U.S. Navy vessels somewhere in the Arabian Gulf, and that stealth aircraft participated in an attack against "targets of opportunity" in central Baghdad.

This was not yet "the" commencement of hostilities. The best has yet to come.

Naturally, the first news reports came with some confusion, as can well be expected, and as is always the case in such situations. War, after all, is far from an exact science. Any seasoned soldier will tell you that once the first shots in a conflict are fired, all the best-laid plans are subject to immediate change and review.

But in what must certainly be the most pre-planned war and the one to have received the most media coverage before it ever began, what quickly became apparent that the attack was not the official "anticipated start of the war."

Nevertheless, President George W. Bush went before the world's television cameras from his Oval Office in Washington, to inform friends and foes alike, that once the real war began, coalition forces would use "decisive force," and that there would be "no half measures."

Victory, said the president, would be certain.

Television viewers around the world were even privy to the American president having his makeup applied and his hair combed before delivering his speech.

But it was not long before rumors started to circulate among the multitude of television channels offering live reports from Baghdad, that Saddam Hussein and other high ranking Baath Party officials had been the "target of opportunity" that had precipitated the sudden attack on the Iraqi capital.

From CNN, to Britain's BBC and ITV networks, French, Italian and Spanish news stations, and to the half-dozen Arabic-language networks with correspondents in Baghdad — al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, Middle East Broadcasting and others — all offered their version of events, which strangely enough, were all quite similar.

Images from static camera positions, abandoned on rooftops by departing news crews not wanting to be caught out in the open once the bombs started to rain, offered various views of a strangely serene looking Baghdad.

But within an hour Saddam dissipated the rumors of his premature death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "before they were widely exaggerated," and appeared on Iraqi state television.

For someone who supposedly had just escaped an attempt on his life, the Iraqi leader looked remarkably calm and composed. He read a statement urging his people to "raise their swords" against the invaders — a sentence he repeated at least four times.

Saddam read his statement from what were obviously notes haphazardly scribbled on a spiral notebook, from which he jumped back and forth, much as a reporter would when consulting his notes.

Dressed in a clean, neatly pressed military-style uniform, he did not seem like someone who had just escaped an attempt on his life. The only obvious and blatantly noticeable difference to anyone aware of Saddam's habits, was the fact that he wore thick reading eyeglasses, something the Iraqi leader always has avoided doing in public.

Always vying for perfection — or at least to appear as such in front of his people — the 65-year-old Iraqi strongman would always have the texts of his speeches printed in extra large font so he could easily read them and appear as though he possessed perfect 20/20 vision.

Always conscious of his image, Iraqi television cameramen are under standing orders never to show him walking more than just a few steps, so that his limp does not show.

But once the coalition forces now numbering 35 countries, according to Bush, commence their offensive aimed at ousting him from power, Saddam may well have much more to worry about than his image.


(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)

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