THE whole world expected war today. Yet when it began, it surprised us all. As President George Bush's 1am deadline passed without capitulation from Saddam Hussein, we held our breath. Nothing.

The Pentagon had warned of its plans to use the so-called "shock and awe" strategy: an air bombardment of such ferocity that it would terrify the Iraqi forces into surrendering without a fight. That made the silence still more unsettling.

Even Tony Blair was reportedly told he could go to bed and get a good night's sleep, only to be woken after midnight to be informed that Washington's plans had changed.

Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that this is a war at America's behest on American terms. Mr Blair is the only other national leader to make a major military contribution, committing 45,000 troops to the Gulf. Yet even he was only given a few hours' notice before the first bombs dropped.

If it is possible to have a low-key start to war, this was it. A few dozen missiles were aimed at specific Baghdad targets. Apparently this was an audacious attempt to "decapitate" the Iraqi regime by killing its leaders.

On the face of it, this was not an entire success. The Iraqi leader appeared on television as defiant as ever: but was this the real man or a double; was he broadcasting live, or was this the ghost of Saddam past? However sophisticated the Western military machine, it cannot answer these questions definitively.

So the war has begun, but not in earnest. Huge numbers of troops are still waiting for action, their relatives' anxiety heightened another notch. In the words of one US military source, "this ain't A-day": the massive air attacks are yet to come.

There is, however, no going back. When the first explosions were heard in Baghdad at 2.34am GMT, the peace protesters' cause was lost.

Now all we can do is watch and hope. Hope that the military campaign is sophisticated enough to ensure the war is swift, the casualties few. Hope that our servicemen and women have the leadership and technology necessary for the job, so as many as possible can return home safely. Hope that if Saddam possesses weapons of mass destruction, he does not deploy them.

At home, Britain is on a high state of alert for a possible terrorist backlash. The Home Office is recommending householders lay in provisions just in case.

Any domestic threat will recede only if the aftermath of war is handled with great care and commitment. Immediate and substantial support should be given to the aid charities which will help starving and shell-shocked refugees.

One last hope, then: that the same meticulous planning and vast investment in this war will be applied to the task of rebuilding and stabilising Iraq in the difficult years to come.

Updated: 10:21 Thursday, March 20, 2003