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'Decapitation strike' was aimed at Saddam

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Kuwaiti Civil Defense official Ali Hamlam watches the televised speech of Saddam Hussein a few hours after the first U.S. attack.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The decision to launch a "decapitation strike" aimed at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was made by President Bush during an urgently called meeting Wednesday evening in which the CIA director voiced concern that a prime opportunity could be lost, U.S. officials said.

One U.S. official said the attack was launched on the basis of fresh intelligence on the location of "very senior Iraqi leadership," including Saddam Hussein. One of the targets was in Baghdad and another south of the capital, the sources said.

The decision to launch the strike came during the four-hour Oval Office meeting of Bush's national security team that included a briefing from CIA Director George Tenet.

The security team came to see the president urgently Wednesday afternoon, administration officials said, because there was concern at the CIA and the Pentagon that the target of opportunity might be lost.

Bush gave the go-ahead at 6:30 p.m. -- 50 minutes before that meeting broke up, the officials said. In addition to Tenet, those on hand for the meeting included Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

At 7:20 p.m., after the meeting broke up, Bush stopped to see his chief speech writer to tell him there would be an announcement later Wednesday and then the president went to have dinner with the first lady.

Around 8 p.m. -- the end of the deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave -- Bush took a phone call in the living room from chief of staff, Andy Card.

Card told Bush that national security and intelligence officials reported that "there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein has left the country," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Around 9:30 p.m. ET, or 5:30 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad, the first reports of anti-aircraft fire and explosions were reported in Iraq.

At 10:15 p.m., Bush gave his address to the nation. "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war," he said.

Pentagon sources said more than 40 satellite-guided cruise missiles were launched at the leadership targets from three vessels -- the USS Donald Cook in the Red Sea, a submarine in the Red Sea and an unnamed Aegis cruiser in the Persian Gulf. Two U.S. F-117A Stealth fighters were also involved in the attack, dropping "bunker buster" bombs on targets, the sources said.

About three hours after the strike began, Saddam Hussein appeared on Iraqi television in a taped broadcast. It was not immediately clear when Saddam taped the message, but he did say the date, March 20.

But beyond the mentioned date, the speech made no specific reference to Thursday morning's strike, leaving the question open of whether the message was taped before or after the attack.

At the White House, officials said that just before Bush addressed the nation, he pumped his fist, winked, and said "I feel good." He then delivered his address, which lasted four minutes.

A senior administration official described Bush's mood after the speech this way: "The president's state of mind is focused on the mission and the country. He believes the mission is to protect the country."

CNN's John King, David Ensor, Jamie McIntyre and Chris Plante contributed to this report


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