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U.S. President George W. Bush announces the U.S. and coalition forces opening strike on Iraq.
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USS Donald Cook launches Tomahawk missiles toward Baghdad from its position in the Red Sea.
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Anti-aircraft fire lights up the skies of Baghdad.
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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Military action to disarm Iraq has begun, U.S. President George W. Bush has said.

The first strikes early Thursday, he said, were against "selected targets of military importance," including what Pentagon officials said was a "decapitation attack" to take out Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Whether the mission succeeded is not known, CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre reported. Pentagon officials said it is very difficult to successfully target a single person on the ground in such a bombing.

Later Iraqi TV broadcast an address by Saddam, in which he said: "Iraq's enemies will be humiliated."

CNN has learned that more than 40 satellite-guided Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from warships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf at selected targets. U.S. F-117 'Nighthawk' stealth fighters were also used. ('Decapitation strike')

A U.S.-led large scale military operation may still be several hours away, sources tell CNN.

Promising a "broad and concerted" campaign, Bush said every effort would be made to safeguard innocent life although the U.S. would use the full force of its military might.

"On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," he said in a live televised address from the White House in Washington.

"This will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome except victory," he said. (Full transcript)

The strikes came less than two hours after the deadline for Saddam to quit Iraq or face a U.S.-led attack.

Around 5:30 a.m. Thursday (0230 GMT) , sirens blared throughout the Iraqi capital and were followed by loud bursts of anti-aircraft gunfire and several explosions.

Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam, his sons and senior leaders to go into exile or face a U.S.-led attack expired at 0100 GMT Thursday, 0400 Baghdad time.

Iraqi officials had earlier made it clear that the Iraqi leader would not comply, although Bahrain on Wednesday offered Saddam "safe exile." (Full story)

An early morning Iraqi radio message on Thursday from a representative of Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday, said: "God protect us from foreign aggressors. God give us patience. God protect our leader."

Earlier strikes

As the deadline for war approached, U.S. and allied warplanes struck targets in southern Iraq on Wednesday -- including artillery in possible range of coalition troops massed on the Kuwait border.

About a dozen warplanes pounded Iraqi positions that threatened American troops, U.S. military officials told CNN.

They said precision-guided bombs hit 10 Iraqi artillery pieces, and jets from the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf targeted further Iraqi positions in the southern no-fly zone after Iraqi forces fired on coalition aircraft.

Meanwhile, 17 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. forces Wednesday as a column of coalition tanks and vehicles headed north through Kuwait toward the Iraqi frontier.

Before military action began, a top U.S. commander said coalition forces were prepared to execute an "unprecedented" campaign that would combine "breathtaking speed, agility, precision and persistence."

"If we go, the plans we have are unlike anything anyone has ever seen before," Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, told sailors Wednesday.

At the same time the White House sought to prepare Americans for loss of life during the conflict.

"Americans should be prepared for what we hope will be as precise and short a conflict as possible," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "There are many unknowns. It could be a matter of some duration, we do not know. ... Americans have to be prepared for loss of life."

In Baghdad, shutters went up on shops and cars packed with people and possessions headed out of the capital. (On the scene)

Hundreds of thousands of people have already crossed borders into Syria and Jordan, and the British and U.S. military are planning for a "worst case scenario" of 2 million civilians being displaced by a war in Iraq.

In the biggest operation of its kind since World War II, the British armed forces say they expect to deal with humanitarian problems for several days before U.N. and other aid agencies arrive. (Humanitarian crisis)

A top Iraqi official warned that Western soldiers would face "definite death" if they invaded the country.

Information Minister Muhammed Saeed Sahaf said troops were kidding themselves if they thought an invasion would be "like a picnic."

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, held a televised news conference Wednesday, dispelling rumors that he had defected or been shot trying to flee Baghdad.

Earlier, speakers in the Iraqi parliament made a show of support for Saddam in an "extraordinary session," promising to fight to the end any "aggression" from the United States and its allies. (Iraq defiant)

In Kuwait, hundreds of military vehicles were spotted heading north toward the Iraqi frontier.

Witnesses described a 26-kilometer (16-mile) stretch of road filled with tanks, armored personnel carriers, fuel trucks and other vehicles.

In other developments:

• Turkey's government plans to ask its parliament Thursday to let the United States use Turkish airspace in a war against Iraq. But the government will not immediately seek parliamentary approval for U.S. troops to be based there. (Turkey votes)

• Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday that Iraq was fully responsible for the current crisis in the Middle East, according to the Kuwait News Agency. In a statement aired by Egyptian TV, Mubarak cited Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and Iraqi leaders not seriously taking the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction.

• U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says about 45 countries are now part of the coalition poised to back an imminent war on Iraq, although 15 of them do not wish to be named. Among the countries named are Britain, Australia, Italy, South Korea and the Czech Republic, which has special skills in dealing with chemical and biological attacks.

• U.S. military officials tell CNN that Iraqi Republican Guard military units south of Baghdad may now have chemical munitions filled with a form of VX nerve agent as well as mustard gas. (Chemical threat)

• Washington and London have pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to ease the impact of a war with Iraq but faced criticism at the U.N. for abandoning diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. (Aid promise)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk

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