SADDAM Hussein was defiant today after the war against Iraq was launched with a wave of air strikes targeting the country's top leadership.

Air strikes by stealth bombers and long-range cruise missiles were said to have targeted five senior members of the Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports were suggesting that Iraqi scud, al samoud and smaller missiles had been aimed at US troops in northern Kuwait. US sources said that two missiles had been shot down.

Two conventional missiles hit northern Kuwait close to its border with Iraq earlier today, according to reports.

A number of gas alerts took place in northern Kuwait today, where allied troops wore gas masks and bio-chemical suits, and also in Kuwait City where residents were urged to wear masks and get into their basements before the all clear was given.

Reports suggested that one of the targets of the US strikes was Saddam Hussein, after American intelligence reported that the Iraqi leader had gone to bed in one of his bunkers.

But a message said to be from Saddam, in which he condemned the US attack as a "shameful crime", was broadcast later on Iraqi television.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said Saddam's broadcast was being examined to assess its authenticity - whether it was a pre-recorded interview or live.

Iraq is claiming that one civilian was killed in the strikes and several civilians were injured.

News of the attacks brought condemnation today from the York Against the War campaign, which is planning a demonstration in St Sampson's Square at 6pm.

"The only response to the immoral and ludicrous behaviour of our Government is to take direct action," said a spokesman. "We will be organising non-violent civil disobedience and we urge the people of York to join us."

York Minster announced it would be holding a special service at 5pm, at which the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, would be leading prayers for peace and lighting a peace candle.

The 45-minute service was being held in the nave, with people encouraged to come in on their way home from work. Meanwhile, St John's Chapel in the north transept will be dedicated to prayer during the war.

Dr Hope, writing exclusively in tonight's Evening Press, said the resort to war was "always a sign of failure on the part of the international community."

He said his thoughts were with members of the armed forces who he was sure would acquit themselves with thorough professionalism, and he called on people to pray fervently for a swift end to the war with minimum collateral damage.

Yorkshire's top army officer, Brigadier David Shaw, who is Commander of York Garrison, spoke of his confidence in the hundreds of soldiers from North Yorkshire who have been deployed to the Middle East.

Antoinette McCormick, the daughter of a York couple who wanted to become a human shield in Iraq to deter a bombing campaign, arrived in Baghdad just hours before the conflict began.

Her parents John and Mairi said today she did not now intend being a shield, but wanted to help civilians during and after the war. They said they were keeping their fingers crossed for their 38-year-old daughter's safety.

The Lord Mayor of York, Coun David Horton, offered the civic party's full support to the servicemen from the city who are out in the Gulf, and their families.

In America, President George W Bush spoke to the American people at about 3.15am British time to announce that "on my orders" the conflict had begun.

He also warned that the campaign may last longer than some had suggested.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was told shortly after midnight that the attacks were due to start in a few hours.

Air raid sirens were heard in Baghdad and anti-aircraft guns fired this morning, though the all-clear was later given.

But there was no sign of any movement from American and British ground forces massed on Iraq's borders.

Instead the attacks were carried out by long-range cruise missiles and stealth aircraft.

Internationally there was a speedy reaction to the start of the conflict, with China calling for an immediate halt to the attack and a resumption of diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.