STANDING in the darkness before dawn yesterday as the air raid sirens wailed across the night air here, the bearded Kuwaiti rearranged his red-and-white headdress. ``I'm glad [about] the end of the invasion, the end of the madman story.... When I heard the news, I just couldn't go back to sleep. I hope that in the next few hours I can go back to my country.''
When he spoke, an hour after the first allied fighter-bombers had launched Operation Desert Storm, the exile was not confident enough in his hopes to want to be identified.
But as the hours passed yesterday without any significant Iraqi response to massive United States-led missile and bombing raids, and the Dhahran air raid warnings proved false alarms, local residents and journalists here began to suspect that the predawn assault had pulled the sting from Iraq's offensive air and missile capability.
Although US, British, and Saudi spokesmen here refused to comment on the effects of the assault, one US Air Force officer was reported as saying the initial raid had been ``more successful than we had imagined.''
Further waves of US F-15 jets and Kuwaiti Skyhawks took off from Dhahran yesterday, streaking into the sky in pairs, to join US, British, and Saudi squadrons said to be pounding military targets throughout Iraq.
Initial reports said almost all had returned safely to base without suffering at the hands of Iraqi anti-air defenses, although Iraqi Radio claimed 14 allied planes had been brought down by press time.
French and Kuwaiti air forces said all their planes returned, while France said four of its Jaguars were hit by Iraqi ground fire over Kuwait, and one British plane was missing. Correspondents at air bases in Saudi Arabia reported no loss of US aircraft.
``I went in with a group of guys and we got them all out. That was the important thing for us,'' said one F- 15 pilot.
The small Kuwaiti force, which escaped from the emirate in the early hours of Aug. 2, the day of the Iraqi invasion, said 12 of its planes made an independent daylight raid after the first wave of attacks.
The only confirmed sign of Iraqi resistance to the hundreds of sorties and cruise-missile strikes came a few hours after the raids began. Some Iraqi SCUD missiles reportedly fell short of a US air base in central Saudi Arabia from which coalition attacks were being launched.
A number of artillery rounds and rockets fell into the sea beyond oil installations at Khafji, near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, according to a local driver who watched them land. This appeared to be the only ground action, with almost all the fighting taking place in or from the air.
In the air, the coalition assault squadrons apparently ran into surprisingly little resistance.
``We encountered a few planes coming up, but nothing came close enough to deliver any ordnance,'' said US Air Force Col. Don Kline, back at base after flying an F-15 escort for a bombing run.
Iraqi pilots are unused to night flying, he added, but cautioned that ``it's not over till it's over. We're going to have to be extremely visual and keep our guard up'' against the planes and missiles that escaped the early allied raids.
Other pilots who struck at targets inside Kuwait reported seeing Iraqi planes flying north toward home territory, away from the allied attack.
``It was a preservation move,'' explained US Air Force Captain Gentner Drummond, a pilot. ``If they'd stayed on the ground, they would have been bombed, and if they'd come in our direction, they'd have been shot down.''
At Dhahran, the largest permanent air base in Saudi Arabia, air raid sirens sounded almost as soon as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of US forces, urged his troops in a predawn statement from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to be ``the thunder and lightning of Desert Storm.''
Clutching gas masks in case of an Iraqi chemical attack, journalists working at the press center in the International Hotel, next to the airport, and hotel staff crowded into a basement room that had been sealed against nerve agents. Twice the air raid sirens sounded in the early hours of yesterday morning, but on both occasions they proved to be false alarms.
Soon afterward, reporters swarmed upstairs again to watch President Bush on television delivering his speech to America. As he announced solemnly that ``this is an historic occasion,'' his words were backed by a muezzin's chant, calling the Muslim faithful to dawn prayers.
From Baghdad, in a radio broadcast monitored in Cyprus through heavy allied jamming, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invoked Allah as he portrayed his country's war with the 28-nation coalition as a holy jihad.
He told his people that ``the mother of all battles'' had broken out ``between the triumphant truth with the support of God and the evil pushed by Satan which will be beaten eventually, God willing.''
Earlier, Baghdad Radio had reportedly called on the Arab masses to strike at Western targets in the region. A statement by the Palestine Liberation Organization condemned what it called the ``aggression against Baghdad.''
In Dhahran, security around the International Hotel was stepped up sharply in the wake of the raids on Iraq, with M-16-toting US soldiers checking everyone's ID.