Associated Press

NEAR THE IRAQI DESERT, Kuwait — Capt. Philip Wolford's men leaped into the air and waved empty rifles in an impromptu desert war dance. Troops of the 101st Airborne Division ate a special pre-combat meal of lobster and steak. Soldiers sent e-mails to loved ones and savored what could be a last good shower for a long while.

To the ever-louder drone of warplanes, American soldiers in the northern desert that will serve as a launch pad for attacking Iraq engaged Wednesday in some final rituals before a war that seemed inevitable.

"Everybody's ready to go," said Command Sgt. Maj. Iuniasolua Savusa, of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade at Camp New Jersey. "Things are going according to plan."

Checkpoints sealed off unauthorized movement on the desert as U.S. troops and armored vehicles rolled toward the Iraq border in the hours before President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein ran out at 4 a.m. Thursday local time.

Less than two hours after the deadline passed, anti-aircraft fire and explosions were heard across Baghdad as the U.S. military struck with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs in an attack targeted at Iraqi leaders.

Bush described the action as the opening salvo in a "broad and concerted" operation to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

"To all of the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you," he said. "That trust is well-placed."

Upon hearing of the attack, Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Borgmann, 23, of Sydney, Neb., said: "It's about time. Today we've been here a month and a week."

"It's the right thing to do. We are going to be part of the liberation of Iraq," said a fellow member of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Lance Cpl. Daymond Geer, 20, of Sacramento, Calif.

With no sign that Saddam and his sons would heed Bush's order to go into exile, the 20,000 men of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division had received some of the first orders Wednesday to line up near Iraq.

With thousands of M1A1 Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and trucks, the mechanized infantry unit known as the "Iron Fist" would be the only U.S. armored division in the fight, and likely would meet any Iraqi defenses head on.

After a brief prayer, Wolford leaped into an impromptu desert war dance. Camouflaged soldiers joined him, jumping up and down in the sand.