DESERT Shield has become a Desert Storm whose intensity seems to have caught even those involved by surprise. When the United States-led military alliance launched initial attacks against Iraqi targets in the early hours of Thursday morning they hit with massive force, as US officials had been warning all along would happen. What Washington hadn't predicted was the apparent high degree of success in this first, heavy punch.
After months of tension and agonizing over the possibility of military force going badly awry, reports that most of the Iraq's Air Force and a large portion of its best ground forces had been destroyed resulted in a surprised sense of relief in the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Aides began openly voicing hopes that the war could be over by the weekend.
But others cautioned that the first blush of optimism would almost surely give way to a more realistic assessment of the task still at hand.
Initial reports are often too rosy, cautioned one consultant to the Pentagon on conventional forces. ``There's a lot more to go,'' he said.
Reports of initial strikes had an almost antiseptic quality, with the only damage reported being hits on four French Jaguar airplanes, none apparently serious.
As of early Thursday morning no US personnel had been reported to have been even scratched - a situation which, in war, will almost certainly not be sustained.
For days US Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has been one of the most optimistic voices on the battle outcome in Washington, talking of a quick fight and moderate casualties, but Thursday he warned that things were far from over.
``I'd be stunned if there weren't some casualties,'' he said.
At this writing the most important aspects of the young war were things that hadn't happened.
The first involved Iraq's much-feared Scud missiles. A threat to civilian populations in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, they were a primary target of the first wave of UN air strikes. Though there were unconfirmed reports that as many as five had been fired, none reached any target of significance, and as the day passed in Tel Aviv it seemed clear that a Scud attack - Iraq's best tool for dragging Israel into the war - was no longer a significant danger.
A scenario involving Israeli retaliation, inflaming Arab public opinion, had been the concern of Washington officials.
The second apparent non-event centered on the cohesion of the multinational alliance itself. Anti-American riots did not erupt in Egypt, as some had worried. If they had, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak might have found himself under fire on the home front as well as in Saudi Arabia. Support from Western allies remained strong, and Turkey abandoned previous hesitance and announced plans to consider allowing US warplanes to make bombing runs from Turkish bases.
Anti-American violence also failed to erupt, as feared, in Jordan or Pakistan. Jordan's King Hussein, widely thought to be a major loser in the Gulf crisis so far, at least faced a diminishing chance that he would be caught in a crossfire of military blows exchanged by Iraq and Israel.
Iraqi air counterattacks did not quickly erupt across Eastern Saudi Arabia, despite the occasional wail of air-raid sirens. The Philippine government decided there was no need to evacuate the thousands of its nationals working in the province.
In perhaps the most ironic response of the night, the most recent previous target of US air power in the region, Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, implicitly condoned the alliance attack. He issued a statement saying the allied effort ``must be made so that the operation does not go any further than the recovery of Kuwait.''
On the operations front, the US military had, as of this writing, provided only sketchy details of what went on in the early hours of Thursday, Baghdad time. Eyewitness reports of large amounts of antiaircraft fire directed at what seemed an empty sky indicated that the Pentagon may well have taken a page from Israeli tactics and used unmanned vehicles - most likely cruise missiles - as an initial test to set off air defenses, which are then located and targeted for attack.
Air strikes had been widely predicted as the way the war would start, but few analysts had expected that Iraq's elite ground forces, the Republican Guards, would be among the initial targets, as was apparently the case.
If these forces, well armed and trained, were indeed decimated, as early reports claimed, it would be testimony to the effectiveness of the US-led strike.