WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday the United States will unleash war against Iraq unless Saddam Hussein flees his country within 48 hours. The president warned Americans that terrorists may strike in retaliation and put the nation on higher alert.
“The tyrant will soon be gone,” vowed Bush, commander in chief of 250,000 U.S. troops poised to strike.
Bush set a course for war without U.N. backing after months of futilely trying to persuade Saddam to disarm. In an address televised worldwide, he spoke to several audiences at once, starting with the American public and skeptical allies and including Saddam, Iraq’s military and its citizens
“The day of your liberation is near,” Bush told Iraqis.
The speech did not silence opposition from home and abroad to Bush’s tough-on-Saddam 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 Saddam 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 Saddam’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. EST Monday, White House spokesman Adam Levine said.
At home, Bush raised the terror alert status from yellow to “high risk” orange, the second-highest level.
“War has no certainty except the certainty of sacrifice,” Bush told a worldwide television audience.
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 Saddam could use the notice to build opposition to the president’s case or even launch a pre-emptive strike.
Bush told journalists and weapons inspectors to leave Iraq immediately.
He issued his ultimatum after U.N. allies refused to back his bid for a resolution sanctioning military force. The diplomatic defeat led Bush to move toward war accompanied by Britain, Spain, Australia and a handful of other nations in his self-described “coalition of the willing.”
He lashed out at France and other wary allies at the U.N. “These governments share our assessment of the danger but not our resolve to meet it,” Bush said.
For the first time since he drew the nation’s attention to Iraq last fall, Bush focused on the questions most asked by Americans: Why war? And why now?
Spelling out the threat, he said Saddam has a history of hating America, has ties to terrorists and is a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Primarily, he said Saddam could turn his weapons of mass destruction over to terrorist groups.
“Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed,” Bush said.
Iraq denied it has weapons of mass destruction, and Bush offered no new evidence to counter Baghdad’s assertion.
In New York, Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri said: I feel sad and angry at the same time because I found no reason for all this game, no reason for this war, no reason for this conflictual relationship between Iraq and the United States. We would like to have better relationship than to go to war.”
Poised to exercise his doctrine of pre-emptive military action, Bush said responding to enemies who strike first “is not self-defense. It is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now.”
Bush said that after 12 years of diplomacy and weapons inspections, “our good faith has not been returned. The Iraqi regime has used diplomacy as a ploy to gain time and advantage.”
Bush addressed Iraqi troops directly.
“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.
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 assistance 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 Saddam 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 margin, generally supports military action against Iraq to remove Saddam, 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, congressional and White House aides said. The bill would also include aid for Israel, a key U.S. ally in the region, and money for anti-terrorism efforts at home.