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 defence ministry spokesman said an Iraqi Scud and two smaller missiles struck northern Kuwait.
Sahaf denied Iraq had any Scuds, which are banned under 1991 Gulf War ceasefire terms that also ordered Baghdad to scrap its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes.
U.S. officers said two Scuds had hit Kuwait. The Kuwait News Agency said U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries shot down two incoming Scuds. The attacks prompted repeated air raid alerts in jittery Kuwait City and residents rushed into shelters.
Britain said last year Iraq had retained up to 20 of the Soviet-designed Scuds, which can fly up to 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.''
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.
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.
BAGHDAD (March 20) - President Bush unleashed a war on Iraq on Thursday with dawn air raids to kill Saddam Hussein, but he survived and spat defiance at America.
The Iraqi leader 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 media and customs 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.''
NO BLITZKRIEG YET
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.
The commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the planned strikes would be beefed-up versions of the bombing raids carried out in Iraq's southern ''no-fly'' zone in recent years.
''It will be like Southern Watch on steroids,'' he said.
Striking a sombre, 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 civilisation 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 centre.
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 defence official said there had been an exchange of artillery fire.
The U.S. military appeared to take over the main frequency of Iraqi state radio, saying Saddam's rule was under attack. ''This is the day we have been waiting for,'' the radio 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.
France said it hoped the Iraq conflict would end swiftly and urged regional countries not to make things worse. China called the war illegal, saying it should stop immediately.
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.