An irresistible force on two sides of the world girds on its armor to pry him loose.
By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2003
WASHINGTON -- The United States moved to the brink of war Tuesday as Saddam Hussein rejected President Bush's ultimatum to leave Iraq.
In Kuwait, U.S. troops packed their Humvees and prepared to attack. Offshore in the Persian Gulf, a supply ship provided the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk with a fresh load of missiles and bombs.
In Baghdad, many residents rushed to stockpile food and gasoline while thousands of others held a rally to support Hussein. They chanted their willingness to die and carried banners that read, "Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam."
Around the United States, security was beefed up at airports, seaports and nuclear plants to guard against terrorist retaliation. The Federal Aviation Administration imposed new flight restrictions around New York City, Washington and even Disney World.
The Bush administration declared Hussein had until 8 p.m. Eastern time tonight to leave Iraq. But Hussein rejected that request. He appeared on television in his military uniform -- the first time since the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- and warned his commanders to prepare to fight.
Iraq's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, told reporters it was "Bush who should go into exile, because it is Mr. Bush who is endangering the whole world."
U.S. officials haven't said when the invasion will begin, but they've indicated it will be very soon. At the White House, President Bush met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to discuss final war plans.
Secretary of State Colin Powell announced 30 nations publicly support the U.S. invasion and that 15 others have given their backing privately. No Arab countries were listed among the 30.
Only a handful of nations will be involved in combat. U.S. officials have not released a complete list, but Britain is known to have contributed about 45,000 troops, Australia has offered 2,000 and Poland, 200. Albania has offered 70 soldiers for noncombat roles, and Romania contributed 278 noncombat experts in demining, in chemical and biological decontamination and military police.
On Tuesday, Bush tried to ease tensions with Russia, which along with France and Germany wanted more weapons inspections before invading Iraq. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said Bush and Putin "don't see eye-to-eye" on the attack but that they "did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russia relations, and the both expressed confidence that it would, indeed, happen."
Fleischer said Bush still hoped that Hussein would seek exile in another country. Fleischer did not specify which nation but said "we're confident that if he wanted to leave the country, he could."
By late Tuesday, that option seemed unlikely after defiant responses from Hussein, his son and the Iraqi foreign minister.
About 300,000 troops are within striking distance of Iraq. With them are hundreds of M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2/M3 Bradley armored fighting vehicles, scores of attack helicopters like the AH-64 Apache and more than 1,000 airplanes ranging from the pilotless Predator drone to the carrier-launched F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, met with other top military officers at the forward command center in Qatar, about 700 miles from Baghdad. Franks and the generals worked to make sure their forces were as prepared as possible, Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson said.
"He wants to make sure that the commanders have thought about every possible contingency that you can," Wilkinson said.
In Baghdad, United Nations weapons inspectors hurriedly packed and left town. Baghdad residents mobbed bakeries and gas stations in a desperate rush for supplies. Shelves in many shops were empty after store owners moved merchandise to warehouses because of fears of bombing or looting.
In the U.S., police and the FBI braced for the possibility of terrorist retaliation. New York called its program "Operation Atlas," while the federal effort was dubbed "Operation Liberty Shield." The Federal Aviation Administration issued tough new flight restrictions around New York, Washington, sporting events and Disney theme parks.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats remained divided about the war.
Some said it was time to invade, while others criticized the administration for failing to find a diplomatic solution. In a speech Monday, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said he was "saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."
That prompted a response from Fleischer, who came to a morning briefing armed with past comments from Daschle, including one last fall when the senator said, "We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death. ... We have to rise to a higher level."
Fleischer said, "It just strikes me as inconsistent."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said Daschle "has spent more time criticizing the leadership of President Bush than he has spent criticizing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein."
The White House has avoided saying how much the war will cost, but the lawmakers say they are ready to approve what ever is needed.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said estimates range from $60-billion to $80-billion. He said he ready to act when the administration submits a request, but he said the ultimate number could be higher or lower than that range.
"Until we see how Saddam and his military react, nobody can be sure," he said.
Young said he would make sure the administration got the money it needed. "Our troops are going to be in harm's way. I will do everything I can to make sure our troops know they are being supported."
-- Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.