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News analysis: Major assault next

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait — Some wars begin with a bang. Others begin with limited airstrikes, stealthy border movements and psychological operations to weaken the enemy's resistance.

This war began with both. The major blow was a cruise missile attack from the Red Sea against three "leadership targets," an apparent effort to decapitate Saddam Hussein's regime. The strike recalled the cruise missile attack the Clinton administration mounted — unsuccessfully — to try to kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It was an attempt to end the war with a single, decisive blow.

But even before the Baghdad attack took place, the final preparatory phase of the war was under way. It included attacks on artillery, a major psychological operations campaign and the positioning of ground troops along the Kuwait-Iraq border.

Despite these twin developments — the attack on the leadership and the maneuvering at the border — the major air and land assault to collapse Saddam's regime has not yet been unleashed. The United States is still preparing the knock-out punch.

Meanwhile, it has already hit some targets. On Wednesday afternoon, allied warplanes attacked about a dozen Iraqi artillery pieces near the southern Iraqi town of Al Zubayr and on Al Faw peninsula.

The strikes were important militarily and also for what they signaled politically. Allied warplanes patrolling the southern no-flight zone have attacked surface-to-air missiles, radar and surface-to-surface missiles in southern Iraq. But this was the first time that artillery has been attacked.

The military rationale seemed clear: to set the stage for the invasion of Iraq. The artillery pieces that were attacked included GHN-45 howitzers, an Austrian-made 155-millimeter gun that has been part of Iraq's arsenal for some time and that the Iraqi military moved south near Al Zubayr about three weeks ago. With a range of about 25 miles, the howitzers could reach the American and British forces moving into attack position in northern Kuwait and threaten them as they advanced north.

Allied warplanes also attacked Type 59 field guns stationed on Iraq's Faw peninsula, which were in range of the Kuwait's Bubiyan Island.

The attacks were also something of a political milestone. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the allied land war commander and his top deputies, have been concerned about the artillery and had wanted to destroy them before sending American and British troops into harm's way in Iraq. The Bush administration had been reluctant to give McKiernan the go-ahead while the issue of Iraqi compliance with orders to disarm was still before the U.N. Security Council. Officials argued that an attack then would suggest that Washington had written off a peaceful resolution.

After Bush issued his ultimatum on Monday that Saddam leave Iraq within 48 hours, however, it was clear that the diplomatic phase had come to an end. So Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave the approval to strike.

The American military took another step on Wednesday to create the conditions for a full-fledged air and land assault, issuing instructions to what it hopes are poorly motivated Iraqi troops on how to surrender to allied forces or at least ensure that they are not attacked. The message was delivered by a radio station near the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border operated by American Special Operations forces and by an airborne radio station. Leaflets with similar instructions were dropped by allied aircraft.

One American concern was that any Iraqis who heeded the instructions would be attacked by security agents deployed with Iraqi soldiers to enforce Saddam's will. Wednesday's instructions were disseminated on the clear assumption that allied troops were soon to be the dominant force in Iraq.

Leaflets dropped by U.S. aircraft instruct the Iraqis to park their vehicles in a specific formation, put white flags on them, move more than half a mile away from their vehicles and wait for instructions.

The upcoming airstrikes in Baghdad will be more concentrated than in 1991, so concentrated that its advocates have dubbed the plan "shock and awe."When it happens, there will be no debates as to whether the war is truly under way.