- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) — President George W. Bush told Americans that a war to disarm Iraq began Wednesday; a war he said America was reluctant to wage, but one which would not be a "campaign of half measures."

"My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger," Bush said about 10:15 p.m. Wednesday — 6:15 a.m. Thursday Baghdad time.

"On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign. More than 35 countries are giving crucial support — from the use of naval and air bases, to help with intelligence and logistics, to the deployment of combat units," Bush said.

Speaking from the Oval Office, as television reports from Baghdad said American cruise missiles and dive bombers had attacked targets at dawn in the Iraq capital, Bush reassured the families of the men and women in the Gulf region that their loved ones would be home as soon as the task was completed.

He said that "millions of Americans are praying with you for the safety of your loved ones and for the protection of the innocent. For your sacrifice, you have the gratitude and respect of the American people. And you can know that our forces will be coming home as soon as their work is done."

The United States targeted a residence in Baghdad after "senior Iraqi leadership" arrived there Wednesday, a U.S. government official told United Press International.

The information came "in a fairly timely fashion" sometime Wednesday afternoon, compelling a fast strike before the Iraqi leaders left. The official would not identify the target or targets of the strike.

Bush met with his national security team for almost three hours Wednesday afternoon and ordered the strike, the official said.

The official said the United States "won't know for a while" what the result of the strike was. Saddam was due to address his nation is a rare live television appearance.

"Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly — yet, our purpose is sure," Bush said in his address. "The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."

But he assured the audience that coalition forces would try to spare innocent civilians.

"I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm," Bush said. "A campaign on the harsh terrain of 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."

As the military campaign got under way, the mood in the White House could best be described as somber exuberance with administrations officials only subtly giving reporters indication that military action would begin before morning. White House staff paused briefly where they stood to listen to the president address the nation.

Fleischer earlier had told reporters to "stay flexible" shortly after the deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq passed unheeded — a gentle hint that perhaps hostilities could get under way soon. Roughly an hour later Fleischer stepped to the podium in the briefing room and made the short statement that, "The initial phases of the disarmament of Iraq have begun."

Outside the White House — the site of boisterous protests earlier in the day — uniformed Secret Service officers maintained a tight security perimeter around the executive mansion as a handful of protestors chanted "No blood for oil" about a block away and out of earshot of the main executive mansion complex.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Wednesday said his prayers and thoughts were with "our sons and daughters in uniform." Daschle drew the ire of Bush and the GOP earlier this week when he said the war would come as a result of the president's failed diplomatic efforts.

House Speaker J. Denis Hastert, R-Ill., said it was hard to predict the course of any conflict, but that "we know that Saddam Hussein, with his brutal track record, will do his worst and that we will do our best."

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said he was confident that American war fighters and an alliance of more than 35 countries would remove Saddam from power for spurning more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to rid his regime of weapons of mass destruction.

"Tonight our thoughts and prayers are with the men and women or our armed forces who have committed themselves to stand up for the values of our nation and defend the security of our world," Edwards said.

"Make no mistake," he added. "Saddam Hussein alone has chosen war over peace. He has defied international law rather than disarm his weapons of mass destruction. Our world will be safer when he is gone."

Bush received word shortly after 8 p.m. EST that Saddam and his sons had not heeded his warning to leave the country or face military action.

"Disarmament of the Iraqi regime will begin at a time of the president's choosing," White House press secretary Fleischer said about 15 minutes after the deadline expired.

Bush held a late meeting with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers before retiring to the White House residence for dinner with first lady Laura Bush.

Fleischer said the president received word from Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who had been in contact with the Central Intelligence Agency and the national security team. Card informed the president in telephone call that Saddam remained in Iraq.

The reality of pending military action was palatable within the West Wing.

"The American people are ready for the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The nation is ready; the cause is just," said a somber Fleischer told reporters.

It was earlier in the day that Fleischer said, "Americans ought to be prepared for loss of life. Americans ought to be prepared for the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein to protect the peace."

The showdown was the culmination of 12 years of U.N. resolutions ignored by Iraq and months of unsuccessful efforts by the United States and the international community to convince the Arab leader to disclose a cache of chemical and biological weapons they claim he has.

Bush remained out of sight Wednesday, making a 20-minute telephone call early in the day to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has backed the president at great political risk, including the loss of a Cabinet minister who resigned in protest. Bush congratulated Blair on finally gaining the support of Parliament for the war, in a vote late Tuesday.

The president sent Congress a formal notification of his plans to use military force in Iraq, saying that further diplomatic and other peaceful means would neither adequately protect the national security of the United States nor lead to the enforcement of the U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Iraq's disarmament.

Later he met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Ridge's agency has discounted reports that the advent of war would prompt officials to move the national threat alert from "high" to "severe" — the highest level on the agency's five-color terror warning scale.

"There are no plans to raise the alert level beyond where it is today," DHS spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. It would only be heightened should the intelligence community receive "specific, corroborated threats of a specific nature," he said.

Bush and U.S. officials have maintained that Iraq has ties with al-Qaida, the Islamic extremist group that U.S. officials blame for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington that killed some 3,000 people.

The U.S. Secret Service on Tuesday expanded the perimeter around the executive mansion, banning pedestrian traffic and implementing stepped-up identification checks for those entering the White House complex. Earlier in the week, war protesters had perched in Lafayette Park directly across the street from the White House, chanting, praying and playing instruments, but they were pushed back more than a block as the park was cordoned off.

"It is the right of the American people to speak out. The president and I think it's been widely recognized that there is an overwhelming strong majority of the American people who see it differently from the protesters. And that's their right to see it that way," Fleischer said.

On Wednesday afternoon groups of picket-sign wielding demonstrators rimmed the security perimeter and at one point challenged uniformed Secret Service officers, attempting to break through the barricades near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, part of the White House campus. Police said 29 people were arrested on charges of crossing a police line.

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