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48 hours

The countdown begins. A somber president presses Hussein to flee or face war, tells Iraqis ''day of your liberation is near.''

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2003
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WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Monday gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to go into exile or face attack from the United States and its allies.

In an address to the nation from the White House, made hours after he had abandoned attempts to forge a united diplomatic front against Iraq, Bush said the Iraqi leader and his two sons must leave the country. He warned diplomats, aid workers and journalists in Iraq to get out of harm's way immediately.

Hussein showed no signs of complying, and Bush's language suggested he did not expect such compliance. The president gave no date for the start of war, but it was clear that hostilities could begin as soon as the ultimatum expires Wednesday, or even sooner if Hussein makes clear that he will not go.

"The tyrant will soon be gone," Bush vowed as 250,000 American troops stood poised to strike.

To the Iraqi people, Bush said, "The day of your liberation is near."

Iraqi officials said Hussein would not leave. "He will stay in place like a solid rock," Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf told the al-Jazeera television service.

The speech did not silence opposition from home and abroad to Bush's policies. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Bush had failed "miserably" at diplomacy, forcing the United States to go to war with Iraq.

From the ornate cross halls of the White House, Bush said for the first time that Hussein could not retain power even by beginning to disarm his nation of weapons of mass destruction, long the stated goal of U.S. policy in Iraq. The only way war can be avoided now is Hussein's exile, Bush said.

"All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end," the president said. "Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing."

The 48-hour clock started at 8 p.m. Eastern time Monday, White House spokesman Adam Levine said.

As Bush put the nation on war footing, he also raised the terror alert from yellow to "high risk" orange, the second-highest level, warning that terrorists may strike U.S. interests at home or abroad in response to action against Iraq.

An intense White House debate over whether to establish a timetable was settled hours before the president's speech. Some argued that Bush should not set a deadline because Hussein could use the notice to build opposition to the president's case or even launch a pre-emptive strike.

Bush issued his ultimatum after U.N. allies refused to back his bid for a resolution sanctioning military force. The diplomatic defeat forced Bush to move toward war accompanied by Britain, Spain, Australia and a handful of other nations in his "coalition of the willing."

He lashed out at France and other wary allies at the United Nations. "These governments share our assessment of the danger but not our resolve to meet it," Bush said.

Bush warned that war could lead to retaliatory strikes by terrorists on U.S. interests at home and abroad, and said he had ordered increased security at airports and along U.S. waterways.

"These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible," Bush said. "We will not be intimidated by thugs and killers."

The president focused on the questions most asked by Americans: Why war? And why now?

Spelling out the threat, he said Hussein has weapons of mass destruction he might share with terrorists, has a history of hating America and is a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

"We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities," he said during the 13-minute speech.

"Terrorists and terror states do not reveal these threats with fair notice, in formal declarations," he said. "And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide."

Bush also addressed Iraqi troops.

"If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life," Bush said. He told soldiers to listen carefully to his warning that they should not destroy oil wells or use weapons of mass destruction:

"War crimes will be prosecuted, war criminals will be punished and it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.' "

To civilians in Iraq he said, "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed to lawless men who direct your country and not at you."

He pledged the United States would provide food, medicine and other aid as Iraq recovers from war.

The address came 24 hours after Bush's return from an Atlantic island summit, where he joined with allies from Britain and Spain to give the U.N. Security Council one day consent to disarming Hussein with force.

A quick round of telephone calls Sunday night and Monday morning confirmed what aides said Bush had concluded before the summit: The allies' U.N. resolution was doomed to fail.

He ordered the measure withdrawn to avoid an embarrassing defeat, then gave the go-ahead for a long-planned ultimatum address.

The American public, by a 2-1 ratio, generally supports military action against Iraq to remove Hussein, a slight increase from recent weeks, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll out Monday. Opinion was evenly divided when people were asked about an attack without an attempt to gain U.N. backing.

Bush is expected to ask Congress for up to $90-billion to pay for a war with Iraq and other expenses within days of the start of combat, the Associated Press reported, quoting unnamed congressional and White House aides. The bill would also include aid for Israel, a key U.S. ally in the region, and money for antiterrorism efforts at home.

-- Information from the New York Times, Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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