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WAR WITH IRAQ /

A Hands-Off President Jumps In

March 21, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The stealth bombers were already in the air, bound for Baghdad.

After a debate of more than three hours in the Oval Office with his war council, President Bush had just three more minutes to decide whether to launch the war with Iraq or turn the bombers around.

One more time, he polled each advisor. He reviewed for the last time an unexpected eleventh-hour intelligence bonanza regarding the whereabouts of senior Iraqi leaders, possibly including Saddam Hussein.

Then Bush gave the order.

"Let's go," the president said.

Thus the war against Iraq began.

A senior White House official provided a detailed account late Thursday of the tense hours that led to Bush's decision Wednesday night to launch the first attack of the war, an effort to "decapitate" the Iraqi leadership.

The official's account not only revealed how he made the decision to take the country to war but also illustrated how deeply Bush, who likes to delegate, has been involved in making the decisions.

Bush is immersing himself in details large and small -- some unexpected, many of them urgent -- of the military campaign to disarm Iraq and unseat Hussein.

It was much earlier Wednesday, around 8 a.m. after a video conference with his military commanders in the Middle East, that Bush first gave the go-ahead for war. The timing was left up to Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command.

But a complication arose about 3:30 p.m.

CIA Director George J. Tenet called the White House from the Pentagon, where he was meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

They said they needed to see the president urgently and present him with fresh military and intelligence information that could influence the timing of the war's start, according to the White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Thus Bush convened what proved to be his final pre-war council. From the Persian Gulf region, where it was already Thursday morning, Franks was connected to the meeting via a secure telephone line.

Franks, armed with the new intelligence information about Hussein's possible location, already had dispatched the bombers toward Baghdad. He told the council he needed a decision on whether to let them continue by 7:15 p.m. Washington time.

Bush's advisors were unanimous: Let the bombers complete their mission.

As zero hour approached, Rumsfeld pulled out a copy of the brief address to the nation that had been prepared for Bush to deliver in the event he launched the war.

Rumsfeld read it to Franks to make sure that a bombing mission aimed at killing the Iraqi leadership would be consistent with the president's words. Everyone was still in agreement.

Bush then reviewed the new information one more time and conducted a final poll of his war council members, who included Vice President Dick Cheney; Rumsfeld; Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; national security advisor Condoleezza Rice; Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

At 7:12 p.m., Bush issued his order.

The bombs and the Tomahawk cruise missiles launched in coordination with them started landing about two hours later.

On Thursday, as the attack on Iraq began to pick up momentum, Bush called many world leaders to "touch base," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. The president also met with his war advisors and had lunch with Cheney.

Then Bush convened a meeting of his Cabinet, in part to remind agency heads to continue pressing his domestic agenda, Fleischer said.

Throughout his presidency, Bush has shown his annoyance when aides brought him questions that he deemed unworthy of his attention. For instance, the president has been deeply involved in recent White House debates on how to extend prescription drug coverage to seniors. But he snapped at aides when they sought his input on specific legislative tactics to enact the proposed bill.

"That's for you all to work out," Bush said, ending that discussion, according to a senior White House official.

Bush still plans to maintain much of his routine. Today, for instance, he and First Lady Laura Bush are scheduled to leave the White House for the presidential retreat at Camp David, where they will spend the weekend.

But the White House official who briefed reporters Thursday said the president would be deeply involved in the details of the war -- as he was Wednesday.

The aide, who has worked for Bush for a decade, said the president will be briefed throughout the day on the war's progress and is prepared to weigh in at anytime.

Although the general war plan is set, the official added, "There are all types of variables and developments that we cannot predict that require the attention of the president. He's very mindful of them. He's very attentive to them. He's briefed on them. And he will be as involved as much as necessary."

In his briefing, the aide also detailed the Wednesday morning meeting in the White House situation room during which Bush decided to go to war.

That session linked the president and his senior advisors by video to Franks and his commanders scattered in the Persian Gulf region.

Just before the linkup, Bush went around room asking his advisors, including Rice, Rumsfeld, Myers and Powell, for their final thoughts. They were of one mind: War was inevitable, barring a surprise capitulation by Hussein. Then Franks appeared on the screen -- from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.

The general introduced his eight top commanders to the president and each gave Bush a presentation.

One by one, the president asked them whether "you have everything you need" and whether they agreed with the war plan.

All said yes.

"This force is ready to go," Franks concluded.

"For the peace of the world and the benefit and the freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order," Bush said, according to the White House official, then added, "God bless our troops."

Franks replied: "May God bless America."

Then the president and his general exchanged salutes.

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