Bush Sets Ultimatum For Saddam: Leave Country Or Face War

(WHITE HOUSE, March 17th, 2003, 4 p.m.) -- Bush told Saddam Hussein to flee Iraq or face a U.S.-led invasion, abandoning U.N. diplomacy Monday to brace Americans for war within days.

The president, commander in chief of 250,000 U.S. troops poised at the borders of Iraq, planned to address the nation at 8 p.m. EST.

A draft of his address circulated at the White House had Bush giving the Iraqi leader and his inner circle a firm deadline to seek exile. The deadline would be brief, just a few days, said three senior White House officials who declined to be more specific.

They cautioned that the speech was subject to changes before Bush gave his speech from the pillar-lined White House cross halls. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The diplomatic window has now been closed," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared Monday morning, just 12 hours after Bush's return from an Atlantic island summit. The president and his allies from Britain and Spain had given the U.N. a one-day deadline to sanction the use of force in Iraq.

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He ordered the measure withdrawn to avoid an embarrassing defeat, then gave the go-ahead for a long-planned ultimatum address.

"To avoid military conflict, Saddam Hussein must leave the country," spokesman Fleischer said.

In addition to giving Saddam a final ultimatum, Bush planned to use the prime-time address to explain why he was on the brink of ordering U.S. troops into action without U.N. approval.

The American public, by a 2-1 margin, supports military action against Iraq to remove Saddam, a slight increase from recent weeks, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll.

Bush also was expected to warn about risks facing U.S. troops and perhaps Americans at home, reflecting concern that terrorists will try to retaliate during the war.

The speech would serve as a warning to journalists and humanitarian workers to leave Iraq. "Baghdad is not a safe place to be," Fleischer said.

Bush also planned to outline his plans for helping Iraq recover from military conflict and become a democratic nation after U.S. occupation ends.

This was not the time for Bush to list which nations would join the U.S. in fighting Iraq, officials said. That would come only after the fighting had started, when the president would address the nation from the Oval Office, they said.

Seven months ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell helped persuade Bush to seek U.N. approval for military action despite the objections of anti-Saddam hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney.

His diplomacy derailed, Powell sounded ready to turn to war. "The moment of truth is arriving," said the retired Army general was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Persian Gulf War led by Bush's father.

He said the only way war could be avoided was for "Saddam Hussein and his immediate cohorts to leave the country."

Senior White House officials said they did not expect Saddam to seek exile. Thus, Bush planned to be at war within a matter of days, they said.

Powell suggested that even an 11th-hour effort by Saddam to disarm wouldn't avoid war.

"I can think of nothing Saddam Hussein could do diplomatically," he said. "He had his chance."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)