WASHINGTON — When President Bush huddled with his senior national security team Wednesday afternoon to consider fresh CIA intelligence that President Saddam Hussein and other key members of the Iraqi leadership were spending the night at a complex in southern Baghdad, the Bush team was aware of another, perhaps even bigger secret.
Under the official war plan, designated "OPLAN 1003 V" and approved by the president, the war with Iraq had already begun.
A little more than two hours earlier, at 1 p.m., Washington time, 31 Special Operations teams — about 300 men — began pouring under cover of darkness into western and southern Iraq. Joining smaller contingents of U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries already in Iraq, the special operators fanned out to sever communications, take down observation posts and position themselves to prevent what the Bush administration most feared — moves by the Iraqi high command to use chemical or biological weapons, attack Israel with Scud missiles or destroy the country's oil fields.
The plan anticipated a 48-hour window for the special operators to carry out their missions before the official start of the war, set for 1 p.m. Friday with massive airstrikes against Baghdad and other cities. Soon afterward, the president was to announce the start of the air war, and conventional ground forces were to cross the Kuwait border into Iraq nine hours later.
Over the course of a three-hour meeting in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, the president and his senior national security advisers tore up this choreographed opening to the war. Acting on information presented by CIA Director George J. Tenet, the president ordered an airstrike and cruise missile attack on the Baghdad complex, called Dora Farm, in an attempt to kill Saddam and other senior members of the leadership.
In addition, on Thursday, the administration decided to move up the ground operation by 24 hours. It would commence 15 hours before the first large-scale airstrikes hit Iraq.
The revision of the war plan on the fly last Wednesday, which was described by numerous well-placed government sources, fit a pattern established in January 2002, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Tommy R. Franks began drafting the blueprint for war.
Over the ensuing 14 months, in a series of what these sources described as seemingly endless, often excruciating two-to-three-hour sessions in Rumsfeld's office and in secure video conference calls between the Pentagon and Franks' headquarters in Tampa, the Pentagon planners came up with more than 20 versions of the plan. In all, Bush received a dozen detailed briefings as it evolved.
The constant reshaping, questioning and tinkering by Rumsfeld and Franks strained and nearly broke the system of war planning, according to several senior and well-placed sources. But it also built in some unprecedented flexibility and surprise, characteristics that have defined the war's opening days.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, Bush declared that Iraq was part of an "axis of evil" — setting the country on what, in hindsight, seems like an inevitable course toward war.
At about the same time, as the first phase of the war in Afghanistan was winding down following the ouster of the Taliban militia from power, the president signed a secret intelligence order authorizing the CIA to undertake a comprehensive program to remove Saddam. He authorized spending upwards of $200 million to support opposition groups and expand intelligence collection.
The first CIA paramilitary team secretly began operating in Iraq in June 2002 to gather intelligence and meet with and support opposition groups. Eventually the CIA deployed additional paramilitary teams and established links with Iraqis throughout the country, including Baghdad.
On a parallel track to this covert operation, Rumsfeld, Franks and other civilian and uniformed Pentagon officials began work on the administration's top secret war plan.
According to various sources, when Franks first was asked to present a concept of operations, he proposed a large force. Rumsfeld, with the experience of the Afghanistan war fresh in his mind, pushed for a radically different approach that would envision a smaller ground force and much larger participation by Special Operations troops.
The push and pull between the two men continued over the months that followed. The initial plan called for 14 days of airstrikes before the onset of ground forces. Rumsfeld pressed Franks to reduce the time between the air and ground campaigns. Franks sought to convince Rumsfeld of the need for a larger force.
It was slow going. In August, Bush said in an interview that he had still not seen a military plan for Iraq that he believed would work. "A president likes to have a military plan that will be successful," Bush said.
Early in September, according to sources, Bush was presented with a feasible, credible version of OPLAN 1003 V, the first that he truly seemed comfortable with. But at the strong urging of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the president decided to go to the United Nations to build more international support for disarming Iraq. Negotiations over a U.N. Security Council resolution to give Saddam a final chance to reveal whether he had stocks of proscribed weapons, and the U.N. inspections, would continue for nearly six months.
This "long diplomacy," as one source called it, gave Rumsfeld and Franks the time which in retrospect was necessary to deploy the necessary forces in the Persian Gulf region — and to refine their war plan.
By January of this year, the time between the start of the air and ground campaigns had narrowed to four days, a radical departure from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when U.S. and allied warplanes pummeled Iraq for 38 days before ground forces moved into Kuwait to eject the Iraqi invaders.
In late February, Franks introduced the idea of opening the war with a large, secret deployment of Special Operations teams in Iraq. He argued this could be done with stealth for 48 hours before Iraq and the world realized the United States had started the war.
According to sources, the president was initially uncomfortable with this idea because he had said publicly that he would announce when he had decided to go to war. But the military advantages of the Special Operations mission were significant enough that Bush used deliberately vague language Monday when he delivered his ultimatum for Saddam to leave Iraq by Wednesday. If Saddam ignored the demand, the president said, he would commence military action "at a time of our choosing."
The war plan the president had already set in motion was much more specific.
The Special Operations troops would enter Iraq on D-Day, Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST (9 p.m. in Iraq) — seven hours before the president's ultimatum expired. In the ensuing 48 hours, Bush and the administration would say little about when a war was to begin, the sources said.
On Friday at 1 p.m. — what the plan referred to as A-Day — Iraq would be pummeled by a massive aerial bombardment. Nine hours later, at about dawn Saturday morning in Iraq, the G-Day ground offensive would commence.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld was said to be so worried that the timetable would leak that he issued a formal top secret execute order to Franks to carry out the war plan 1003 V at a time that he would give to Franks orally. That way there would be no paper record of the time the war would begin.
Right on schedule Wednesday, U.S. Special Operators — accompanied by smaller contingents of British and Australian special forces — moved into Iraq. Two and a half hours later, Tenet walked into the White House, where he joined the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in the Oval Office.
He had fresh intelligence about Saddam's whereabouts. The war plan was about to change once again.
As they considered the information, Bush and his advisers considered several issues.
Was a direct attack on the Iraqi leader legal? Administration lawyers quickly determined that it was a command and control facility subject to military attack, and since the war had begun, they determined an airstrike was legitimate.
Would there be significant damage outside the compound? The isolation of the compound suggested it was not a major concern. Precision targeting allowed strikes to hit the buildings believed used by Saddam, his two sons Uday and Qusay, and other members of the Iraqi inner circle but, according to one source, spare a facility used by family members of the leadership.
Would an air attack destroy the operational security of the war plan? There was no certainty but the president's advisers concluded that at attack actually might increase operational security by sowing doubt and confusion inside Iraq and add to the uncertainty about the timing and nature of the coming war.
Could a surgical strike send the wrong message to those inside Iraq secretly aiding or expected to support U.S. forces, suggesting to potential Iraqi allies that the administration was looking for a cheap way out? Several Cabinet members said the presence of nearly 250,000 U.S. forces on Iraq's borders had demonstrated Bush's seriousness.
Was Saddam really there? The intelligence was "damn good," in the words of one source, and a consensus emerged that it was worth taking a shot.
Within hours, F-117A strike fighters dropped a pair of 2,000-pound bombs on the complex, followed by a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. warships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
The president went on national television at 10:15 p.m. to announce the onset of war.
The next morning, Franks recommended advancing the ground operation by 24 hours. The massive assault by two and a third divisions began that evening.
As for the Dora Farm complex, initial assessments show the compound was severely damaged in the precision strikes. But U.S. intelligence authorities, who believe Saddam and his sons were in the bunker during the attack, still have no definitive answer as to whether they were killed, injured, or escaped unharmed.