In a predawn raid conducted under a full moon, U.S. cruise missiles and stealth planes with "bunker-busting" bombs hit a complex where it was believed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his top advisors were spending the night.
"They were afraid that those fighters would be silhouetted against the sky and the gunners would see them," said Evan Thomas, Newsweek magazine's assistant managing editor and co author of a behind-the-scenes account of President Bush's decision to try and take out Saddam. The article was published in the latest issue of the magazine, and Thomas appeared on The Early Show to discuss events leading up to the attack.
"As it turned out," he said, the weather was in favor of coalition forces. "It was a cloudy night. And they got through untouched. They got through before they were even seen."
The war began hours ahead of schedule, Thomas says, because U.S. intelligence was tipped off by a spy inside Saddam Hussein's inner circle about where the Iraqi leader was hiding out.
"Knowing where Saddam sleeps is a very precious bit of information because he moves around a lot," he said.
"Tenet, the CIA director, got this information, raced down to the Pentagon, and they started planning a strike to kill Saddam," Thomas continues. "Obviously, people have been trying to kill Saddam for the last 30 years. The United States wanted to kill him in the first Gulf War, and we never found him. He hit a convoy once, we almost got him. So it's gold to find out where Saddam is actually sleeping."
But there were challenges to accomplish the mission, Thomas explained.
"The tricky part was that we wanted to go in and bomb it, obviously. But we had not suppressed the anti-aircraft batteries. Saddam still had a pretty vigorous set of anti-aircraft batteries around Baghdad, and to surprise him, we didn't have time to go in there and knock out the anti-aircraft. So we had to go right in and hit him right away.
"Now you can do that with cruise missiles. The problem with cruise missiles is their warheads weren't big enough. We knew that he was in a bunker designed by German engineers that was deep, hard to hit, and so we had to use a bunker buster - a bigger bomb. And that required F-117 stealth fighters. We needed to put airplanes in to do it. So there was debate within Bush's inner circle, within his war cabinet in the war room, about just how to do this. And it took a couple of hours," Thomas explained.
A concern was that this would be a suicide mission, Thomas said. "Because although stealth fighters can get through radar; because there was a full moon over Baghdad at 4:00 a.m."
From the CIA source on the ground, Washington believed Saddam was at least hurt in this attacks.
"The initial reports were that he was hurt. There was some hope that he was dead," Thomas said. "But at least that he was hurt. And until they saw that video a couple of days ago, of him giving a speech they were still hoping that he was dead."
Intelligence always is imperfect and relies on just a few sources, Thomas pointed out. He said the CIA informant has been compromised and is most likely dead.
What we are seeing now in Iraq, Thomas said, is the "balance of fear" that Iraqis maintain between the fear of Saddam Hussein and the United States. Thousands are playing a waiting game and will get off the fence only once it becomes clear who will win this war: the U.S. or the Iraqis.