Overriding global protests and the concerns of longtime allies, President Bush ordered the first pre-emptive war in modern American history, sending U.S. forces into Iraq and warning the American people Wednesday night that his drive to topple Saddam Hussein could be long and difficult.
Promising to "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," Bush, for the second time in his two-year tenure, took America to war against a Muslim nation he accuses of harboring terrorists and presenting a direct threat to the American people.
As U.S. Tomahawk missiles and bombs from Stealth bombers struck the Baghdad area, Bush spoke from the Oval Office to a nation divided about the necessity of war, anxious about the threat of terrorist attacks and worried for the safety of a U.S. fighting force now numbering more than 250,000 in the Persian Gulf region.
"Now that conflict has come, the only way to limit its duration is to apply decisive force," Bush said in his 4 1/2-minute address delivered about two hours after the 8 p.m. EST deadline he had set for Hussein to leave the country. "This will not be a campaign of half-measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory."
The first attack in what Bush vowed would be "a broad and concerted campaign" appeared to be limited to Iraqi leadership targets around Baghdad.
After a failed monthslong effort to win the backing of the United Nations Security Council, Bush sought to counter charges that the U.S. was acting alone. He said 35 countries supported the U.S. invasion, although White House aides had earlier acknowledged that "very, very few" would provide combat troops.
The president characterized the military campaign as an attempt to prevent future terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies, as well as a mission to free the long-suffering Iraqi people from decades of authoritarian rule. But it is a war that will be watched warily in Europe and the Arab world, where distrust of U.S. motives is high and fears of a rising Islamic militancy are deep.
The decision to launch military strikes Wednesday followed a late-afternoon meeting in the Oval Office among Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and top national security and military advisers. The meeting, the third of the day, lasted nearly four hours, a senior administration official said.
"They went over defense plans and received the final recommendations from the military planners to begin the operation tonight," the official said. "Using the plans from these officials, he gave the go-ahead."
Bush pledged an all-out fight in what is essentially a follow-up war to the one Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, waged in 1991. The elder Bush expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait but stopped short of moving on Baghdad to remove Hussein from power.
Bush cautioned Americans not to expect a short conflict -- the 1991 ground war lasted only 100 hours -- and pledged to retain a military presence in a post-Hussein Iraq until the nation has been rebuilt and stabilized.
"A campaign on the harsh terrain, on a nation as large as California, could be longer and more difficult than some predict, and helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment," Bush said. Until last night, administration officials had spoken little of the potential difficulties involved in the conflict.
Without ever saying the word "war," Bush characterized the campaign as a means of preventing a second terrorist attack on America.
"We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities," Bush said.
The president also made no direct mention of the campaign's central mission: Removing Hussein from power. And he omitted any mention of the United Nations.
Bush assured the American public that U.S. and British forces would take steps to limit civilian deaths. But he said Hussein was moving military equipment and units into civilian areas, adding that this was the Iraqi leader's "final atrocity against his people."
In an attempt to assuage international concerns that the removal of Hussein by force would do more to destabilize an already volatile region, Bush recommitted his administration to the long-term reconstitution of Iraq.
"We have no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people," he said. "Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly. Yet our purpose is sure."
Bush's speech, his second national address on the Iraqi situation this week, came at the end of a drawn-out, tense day at the White House.
Bush on Monday had given Hussein 48 hours to leave the country or face a military strike. As the deadline drew near, the question was not what Bush would do next, but when he would do it.
There were moments in the White House when even some of Bush's aides seemed unsure of what the president was planning.
Bush spent most of the day in meetings with his national security team, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The decision was so closely held that some senior White House officials were taken by surprise. It was unclear late Wednesday whether any new information was disclosed at the meeting that triggered the decision.
After 7:30 p.m., the president adjourned to the private White House residence and ate dinner with First Lady Laura Bush. At 8 p.m.--the official deadline set two days earlier--the president was in the living room of the private quarters when chief of staff Andrew Card called to say there was no evidence Saddam Hussein had left the country.
Before giving the speech in the Oval Office, the president was seen by reporters pumping his fist into the air saying, "I feel good."www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/iraq/chi-0303200347mar20,0,2412172.storyE-mail this article