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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

Bush Gives Hussein 48 Hours

President Sets Stage for War, Warns Iraqi Leader to Step Down

March 18, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A solemn President Bush put the nation and the world on a war footing Monday, issuing an ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam Hussein to step down within 48 hours or face sure destruction "at a time of our choosing."

In a 15-minute address from the front hall of the White House, the president also delivered three messages to Iraqis and Americans: He promised Iraqis that war would not be aimed at them. He warned Iraqi troops not to resist U.S. forces. And he pledged to Americans to do his utmost to protect the home front from possible retaliation.

"Free nations have a duty to defend our people by uniting against the violent. And tonight, as we have done before, America and our allies accept that responsibility," Bush said.

The president's deadline means that war could begin as early as Wednesday night, Washington time -- the predawn hours of Thursday in Iraq.

Bush stressed that he believes the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of war. "In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over," Bush said. "We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities."

Around the world, nations and international organizations prepared for a war that many oppose but now feel is inevitable.

The United Nations ordered weapons inspectors and other personnel out of Iraq, in effect halting the inspections process many felt was leading to partial disarmament. Witnesses said early today that a plane carrying the inspectors had taken off from Baghdad on a flight bound for Cyprus.

Foreign diplomats shuttered embassies and prepared to leave the country, and Iraqis stocked up on supplies, taped windows, took their children out of school and climbed aboard buses heading out of the capital.

"For their own safety, all foreign nationals -- including journalists and inspectors -- should leave Iraq immediately," Bush said.

Just after the speech, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the national threat level to orange, or "high," the second-highest level. Ridge cited intelligence reports that in the event of a military campaign against Iraq, "terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide."

"These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible," Bush said. "And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail. The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed."

Bush said his remarks were being translated and broadcast into Iraq, and he said he had a message for the Iraqi people: "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free."

At the same time, he urged the Iraqi military to give up without a fight.

"Our forces will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed," Bush said. "I urge every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services: If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life."

Then he added a threat: "War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.' "

The call to war had been expected since Sunday, when Bush and allies Britain and Spain held an emergency summit in Portugal's Azores islands and announced that diplomacy would be halted in 24 hours.

Hours later, on Monday morning, the three withdrew from the U.N. Security Council a proposed second resolution seeking authorization for military action. Under the threat of vetoes from France and Russia, the resolution had failed to attract the nine votes needed to pass.

In his remarks, Bush reviewed the failed diplomacy and accused the United Nations and "some permanent members of the Security Council" -- France and Russia -- for faltering.

"These governments share our assessment of the danger but not our resolve to meet it," Bush said. "Many nations, however, do have the resolve and fortitude to act against this threat to peace, and a broad coalition is now gathering to enforce the just demands of the world. The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours."

Bush asserted that even without a new resolution, the United States has a legal right to use force to disarm Iraq.

He cited two resolutions passed in the early 1990s at the time of the Persian Gulf War. And he recalled that Resolution 1441, passed unanimously in November, promised "serious consequences" -- a diplomatic euphemism for military force -- if Iraq failed to disarm.

"This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will," the president said.

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