Prague, 20 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Just hours after the United States launched limited air strikes against targets in Iraq this morning, Kuwaiti officials said Baghdad responded by firing several missiles, some of them Scuds, on northern Kuwait.
Reporters on the scene say details are difficult to clarify because of security restrictions and repeated alerts. Initially, Kuwaiti and U.S. military officials said six Scuds had been fired, but later changed their estimate to two Scuds, with one being intercepted by a U.S. Patriot missile battery.
This morning, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel, who is in Kuwait, traveled as close to the site of where the missiles landed as he could: "I am at the edge of the northern zone of Kuwait, which has been sealed off limits to journalists. It's near the point where a number of missiles struck early this morning. There are conflicting reports of how many [missiles]. It seems two Chinese[-made] missiles struck first, followed by a Scud missile that was shot down by a Patriot missile. And there are reports of a second Scud missile -- also shot down."
No damage or casualties were reported from any of the missiles.
Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, speaking from Baghdad, immediately denied that Iraq possesses any Scuds -- missiles which Baghdad last used against Israel and Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. The Soviet-designed Scuds have a range greater than the 150 kilometers allowed to Iraq under post-Gulf War UN arms limitations. The United States says it is using military action against Iraq to end the Iraqi government's defiance of those UN demands.
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, speaking in London, said the early morning U.S.-led military strikes were aimed at bunkers believed to shelter senior elements of the Iraqi leadership: "This attack was part of our effort to deal with what is a dispersed command and control in Iraq. Everyone knows that the Iraqi leadership are terrified of their own people. That's why they hide themselves away in a series of different bunkers across the country, and this was part of an effort to deal with part of the leadership hiding away in those bunkers."
There is no word on the success or failure of these initial raids, although Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who appeared on state television this morning, seems not to have been hurt. The Iraqi information minister said one civilian was killed and several others wounded in this morning's raids.
In other developments, the head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Abdullah al-Attiyah, said today that the oil cartel sees no need to pump more oil into the market now that war has erupted in Iraq.
Al-Attiyah, who is also Qatar's oil minister, said the world market is currently oversupplied because of recent OPEC oil production hikes. But he said that if the need arose, oil producers would be free to hike their output to ensure a continuous supply of oil to world markets at stable prices.
Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned today's U.S.-led strikes against Iraq. Speaking at the Kremlin in Moscow, Putin demanded a swift end to military action: "The military action against Iraq is a big political mistake." He said the U.S. attacks could in no way be justified and would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.
Iraq's ambassador to Russia, Abbas Khalaf -- speaking at a separate meeting in Moscow -- used even harsher language: "I can assure the Americans that this [war] won't be a walk in the park, 'dear' Yankees. I can say they can't begin their land operations in the coming days for a number of reasons. At the top of the list is that they well know that this [campaign] will be a real meat grinder."
Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, said relations between the United States and Europe were in crisis due to Washington's decision to use force against Iraq. An estimated 100,000 demonstrators marched through central Athens to protest the U.S. decision to use force, while an estimated 20,000 schoolchildren rallied in an anti-war protest in Berlin.
The European Commission said it is ready to send 100 million euros ($106 million) in rapid emergency relief to Iraq.
European Union leaders are due to meet this evening in Brussels for their spring summit. The meeting was originally meant to discuss economic and tax issues but is now expected to focus primarily on Iraq, as well as on attempts by the EU to forge a common foreign policy -- an effort imperiled by deep splits within Europe on Iraq.
Spain, Denmark, Italy, and Portugal have come out in support of the U.S. use of force against the Baghdad regime, while countries such as Germany, Belgium, and France have registered fierce opposition.
In Ankara, the Turkish Parliament is due to consider a government request this afternoon to grant the U.S. military overflight rights. The measure falls far short of a U.S. request to use Turkish bases as a staging ground for a possible invasion of northern Iraq.
The United States says that even if the Turkish Parliament approves the measure, a multi-billion dollar aid package tied to the original request will not be applicable. The Parliament bill would also allow Turkish forces to cross into northern Iraq if the situation there is judged to become unstable.
On a related note, Elizabeth Oatiz, spokesperson for the U.S.-led international antiterrorism coalition, said today that a coalition air base in Kyrgyzstan will continue to be used solely for operations in Afghanistan, not Iraq: "The answer is, 'no.' The coalition forces based here (at the air base) conduct operations for the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Military action in Iraq does not change that."
U.S.-led forces are primarily using bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Britain and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia for their military operation in Iraq.