WASHINGTON -- The Stealth bombers were in the air, ready to strike a building where Iraqi leaders were believed to be hiding, but President Bush hadn't given the green light.
Sitting in the Oval Office with his national security team Wednesday night, Bush was just a few minutes from the 7:15 deadline his generals had set for a decision. After that, it would be difficult for the planes to turn back.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had run down the hall to the office of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to speak on a secure phone with Gen. Tommy Franks. Rumsfeld read Franks the president's four-minute speech to make sure it accurately characterized the general's plans.
When Rumsfeld returned, Bush asked his war council if they concurred with the plan. A White House official declined to detail their responses, but Bush apparently got the answers he wanted.
"Let's go," he said.
It was 7:12 p.m.
The events Wednesday, as recounted by senior White House officials, reveal Bush's last-minute preparations. He sought the ideas of his top advisers and U.S. military leaders in the Middle East, but the outcome was never in doubt. The nation was going to war.
Earlier Wednesday, Bush had walked down to the White House Situation Room, the high-tech bunker where he can track world events and talk to military and foreign leaders by secure video lines. The room had a video hookup with Franks, the leader of Central Command, and his deputies in the Persian Gulf region.
Franks, who was at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, acted as a master of ceremonies and introduced his deputies. They spoke about their plans for the air war, the ground war and the attacks from the sea. The participants included Lt. Gen. Michael P. DeLong, who is leading the operation at CentCom's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base while Franks is overseas.
The mood was tense as the commanders explained their plans. But when Franks had trouble getting the sound to work properly, Bush broke the tension when he quipped, "Don't worry, Tommy, I haven't lost faith in you."
Bush asked each of Franks' deputies the same two questions: Do you have everything you need to win? Are you comfortable with the strategy?
They did and they were.
Franks summed it up: They were ready to go.
Bush looked through the video camera to his general, 6,000 miles away in Saudi Arabia.
"For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom," he said. "May God bless the troops."
Franks replied, "God Bless America."
They saluted each other.
About 61/2 hours later, Bush's national security team assembled in the Oval Office. They kept an open phone line with Franks as they discussed the final plans.
Once Bush gave the okay, with three minutes to spare, he met with chief speechwriter Michael Gerson for a final review of the speech and then went upstairs to have dinner with his wife, Laura.
About 9:45 p.m., reporters and television networks were alerted that he would address the nation in 30 minutes.
When he came downstairs to the private dining room beside the Oval Office, Bush was told it appeared the bombing mission had gone according to plan. The planes were still in stealth mode, zooming back to their bases.
"Let's pray for the pilots," Bush told his aides.
He sat down at his desk while someone brushed his hair, applied makeup and adjusted his lapel. For several minutes, a video feed of his preparations was mistakenly broadcast worldwide by the BBC.
At 10:15, he was ready to go.