After months of diplomatic wrangling, U.S. President George W. Bush says the United States is set to attack Iraq unless Saddam Hussein leaves his country with his sons.
Washington, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has laid down an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, saying the Iraqi president and his sons have just 48 hours to leave the country or face a U.S.-led invasion.
In an internationally televised address that effectively brought an end to months of diplomatic wrangling over Iraq, Bush said Washington is now set to unleash its military might to disarm Iraq and liberate it from Hussein's authoritarian rule. "All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end. 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," Bush said.
Bush also warned foreign nationals in Iraq, including United Nations arms inspectors and journalists, to leave before any hostilities begin.
But as for Hussein, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri told reporters before the speech in Baghdad that "any child" in Iraq knows their leader is going nowhere. "The only option is the departure of warmonger No. 1 in the world: the failing President Bush who has made his country a joke in the world, who made his administration isolated in the world, who made the United States public enemy No. 1," Sabri said.
Bush, appearing somber but determined, made a direct appeal to Iraqi citizens who might be listening to his speech on U.S.-government-sponsored RFE/RL or Voice of America. "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country, and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror; we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free," Bush said.
As he has said in the past, Bush reiterated that a free and democratic Iraq could serve as a model for reform in the Middle East region.
Bush also made a direct appeal to Iraqi military officials, warning that they will be tried for war crimes if they destroy oil wells or use weapons of mass destruction.
U.S. intelligence sources were quoted as saying just before Bush's speech that they believe a unit of Hussein's elite Republican Guards may be preparing to fight with chemical weapons.
Analysts also said military planners are on guard in case Hussein tries to preempt an invasion by attacking U.S. and British troops first.
And shortly after Bush's speech, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, warning of possible terrorist attacks in the event of an Iraq war, announced that Washington had raised its color-coded terrorism-alert level to "orange," which is the second-highest and signifies a high risk of attack.
Bush said that any terrorist attack would only underline the reason why he is pushing the United States to war in Iraq, i.e., to eliminate any future threat Hussein could pose to America by delivering weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. "We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities," Bush said.
Earlier today, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the legitimacy of any war conducted without an explicit UN Security Council mandate would be questioned.
But in his speech, Bush said that previous UN resolutions dating to the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, which demanded Iraq disarm or face military conflict, gave Washington and its allies all the legitimacy they need.
Bush said that, although he and allies had worked for the last 4 1/2 months with the Security Council, permanent member France had effectively killed off diplomatic efforts last week when it vowed to veto any new resolution to disarm Iraq by force. He did not mention France by name.
The president, who said the United States still believes in the UN, said France and other countries do not have the resolve to act against Iraq. But he said the United States and its allies did. "The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities. So we will rise to ours," Bush said.
Washington has some 235,000 troops and Britain about 45,000 in the Persian Gulf region. It is still unclear what any other allies, such as Spain or Italy, may join any war. Australia today committed 2,000 troops already in the Persian Gulf region to take part in any U.S.-led military campaign.
But several U.S. congressional leaders, briefed by Bush before the speech, said they were disappointed that the administration's diplomacy had come to nothing. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Bush's diplomacy had "failed so miserably."
Nonetheless, some Democratic critics, such as Senator Carl Levin (Michigan), said it's now time to stop the criticism and start showing support for U.S. troops about to go to war. "Those of us who have questioned the administration's approach, including this senator, will now be rallying behind the men and women of our armed forces to give them the full support that they deserve," Levin said.
Meanwhile, Bush's main ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, suffered his biggest political blow of the Iraq crisis when a senior cabinet minister resigned yesterday in protest at the prospect of a war conducted without broad international support.
A large portion of Blair's Labour Party is expected to vote against a measure today in favor of the war. But Blair's cabinet is expected to survive on the strength of Conservative Party support.