BAGHDAD -- The United States unleashed war on Iraq on Thursday, Iraq time, with dawn air raids to kill Saddam Hussein, but the Iraqi leader survived and spat defiance at America.
Saddam appeared on television three hours after the strikes on Baghdad, denouncing the "criminal, reckless little Bush."
Iraq responded to the U.S. attack with several missile strikes on northern Kuwait, which caused no casualties. U.S. officials said the dawn attack by cruise missiles and stealth aircraft, which took even U.S. ally Britain by surprise, was an opportunist hit, aimed to kill Saddam and his entourage.
Announcing the start of a campaign to oust Saddam and disarm Iraq, Bush said "selected targets" were hit. But U.S. officials said an all-out air and ground onslaught might be days away.
"These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign," Bush said in a televised address about two hours after the expiry of a U.S. ultimatum to Iraq.
He said the U.S. military would seek a swift victory while trying to avoid civilian casualties. But he warned the conflict could be "longer and more difficult than some predict."
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon also said the war might not be won quickly.
But oil prices tumbled to three-month lows as dealers bet on a swift U.S. victory with little disruption to supplies.
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said the U.S. raids hit empty buildings and civilian districts. One civilian was killed and several wounded, he said. "The rulers of America are announcing that they are assassins," Sahaf said of the U.S. attempt to kill Saddam."
RAIDS AIMED TO "DECAPITATE" IRAQI GOVERNMENT
U.S. officials said the aim of the raids was to "decapitate" the Iraqi government. They said Saddam and other key leaders had been pinpointed by U.S. intelligence agencies, prompting a swift air attack that could have changed the course of the war.
Three hours after the raids began, a grim-faced Saddam appeared on state television in military uniform, black beret and thick-rimmed glasses, urging Iraqis to defend their country.
"The criminal little Bush has committed a crime against humanity," he said, reading from notes. It was not certain the broadcast was live but Saddam mentioned when the attack began.
Several hours after the U.S. raids on Baghdad, a Kuwaiti defense ministry spokesman said an Iraqi Scud and two smaller missiles hit northern Kuwait. U.S. Marines said one missile landed near their desert camp, shared with British troops.
A Kuwaiti defense ministry spokesman said a U.S. Patriot anti-missile defense battery brought down two Iraqi Scuds.
The attacks prompted repeated air raid alerts in jittery Kuwait City and residents rushed into shelters.
Sahaf denied Iraq had any Scuds, which are banned under 1991 Gulf War cease-fire terms that also ordered Baghdad to scrap its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Britain said last year Iraq had retained up to 20 of the Soviet-designed Scuds, which can fly up to 650 km (400 miles).
Any confirmation that Iraq had used banned weapons might temper criticism of the U.S.-British military action.
The war touched off a hail of international protest led by France, Russia and China -- key U.N. Security Council members opposed to any military action not approved by the council.
"France regrets this action taken without the approval of the United Nations," President Jacques Chirac said in a televised address. "No matter how long this conflict lasts, it will have serious consequences for the future."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Iraq "presented no danger" and the war was "a big political error" that flouted world opinion and international law, and must end quickly.
The Vatican said it was "deeply pained" by the start of the Iraq conflict, lamented Baghdad's failure to disarm and deplored the abandonment of efforts for a peaceful solution.
Arab protesters took to the streets of Cairo and Damascus to show their anger at the war and demanded the expulsion of the U.S. ambassadors.
The raids on Baghdad appeared limited and there was no sign yet of the awesome display of force predicted by military analysts to stun Iraqi troops and sap their will to fight.
A U.S. military commander in Kuwait said limited raids would go on for two or three days ahead of any huge assault, which U.S. officials have said could involve a barrage of at least 3,000 satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles.
Striking a somber, resolute tone in his televised speech, Saddam said: "We pledge to you in our name and in the name of our leadership and in the name of the Iraqi people and its heroic army, in the name of Iraq, its civilization and history, that we will fight the invaders...They will be defeated."
Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, closed its airspace to "belligerent forces."
Reuters correspondents in Baghdad heard the first explosions about 90 minutes after the expiry of a U.S. ultimatum to Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay to leave Iraq by 4 a.m. (0100 GMT). Jets roared over amid anti-aircraft fire and wailing sirens.
Black smoke billowed from one eastern district as a cloudy dawn broke. Explosions later erupted in the city center.
A British military spokesman said there had been no orders to launch a ground assault by tens of thousands of U.S. and British troops poised in northern Kuwait, but a Kuwaiti defense official said there had been an exchange of artillery fire.
A U.S. military Special Operations helicopter made a crash landing in southern Iraq early on Thursday but the crew and elite troops aboard were rescued, U.S. officials said.
Washington's policy on Iraq has deeply divided its allies and sparked anti-war protests around the world.
Without producing firm evidence, Bush says Iraq has links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The war on Iraq follows last year's adoption of a U.S. national security strategy that asserts Washington's right to launch pre-emptive strikes on countries it deems a threat.
Bush and his main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have accused Iraq of hiding banned weapons, but they failed to win Security Council approval for military action.
France, Russia and Germany have led international opposition to war, saying U.N. arms inspections should be given more time.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw urged a deeply divided Europe to pull together to bring humanitarian relief and reconstruction to Iraq after the current conflict is over.
Iraq insists it has no banned weapons, saying it cooperated fully with the U.N. experts, who found little sign of prohibited arms in four months of inspections. They left Iraq this week.