- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

With three minutes left to revamp war plans and order immediate air strikes on a Baghdad house that intelligence operatives said was the site of a meeting between Saddam Hussein and his top advisers, President Bush told his war council: "Let's go."
That decision came at 7:12 p.m. Wednesday, nearly an hour before the 8 p.m. deadline the president gave the dictator and his sons to leave Iraq, according to senior Bush administration officials, who last night detailed the events leading up to the first shots in the war.
Mr. Bush gave the go-ahead after CIA Director George J. Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sought an urgent meeting with Mr. Bush to discuss last-minute intelligence they believed showed Iraqi leaders had gathered in an isolated private residence in southern Baghdad for a war council.
Members of Mr. Bush's national security team recommended he seize the opportunity to kill Iraqi leaders, even if it meant moving up and altering war plans. Weighing his decision, Mr. Bush talked to Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. Army general directing the war.
Gen. Franks agreed with the recommendation, but told the president he had until 7:15 p.m. to make a decision in order to give the military enough time to execute the plan.
Mr. Bush polled his top staff, gathered in the Oval Office, and the verdict was unanimous. "Let's go," the president said.
U.S. stealth fighters were already in the air in case Mr. Bush gave the "go" order. Just more than two hours later, they hit what Mr. Bush in his national address Wednesday called "targets of military importance." White House officials yesterday would not discuss whether the operation to "decapitate" Iraq was successful.
The "let's go" order came after a day full of meetings, discussion and debate in the White House, beginning with a gathering in the White House Situation Room at 8 a.m.
Mr. Bush sought counsel from each of his seven field commanders, who were connected by secure videoconference equipment.
"The president had two straightforward questions for each of these commanders," one senior official said. "'Do you have everything you need to win? And are you comfortable and pleased with the strategy?'"
When Gen. Franks, at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Air Base, had difficulty operating the audio system and pressed the wrong button to talk, the president broke palpable tension.
"Don't worry, Tommy, I have lots of faith in you," Mr. Bush told him, drawing laughter.
Each in turn, the commanders said they were ready. Mr. Bush then got a detailed troop assessment from Gen. Franks. "The rules of engagement are in place, the command and control is in place and this force is ready to go."
Then the president spoke.
"For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute 'Operation Iraqi Freedom.' God bless the troops," the senior official quoted Mr. Bush.
"General Franks stood, said 'May God bless America,' saluted him. The president saluted back and left the Situation Room."
But the situation changed at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, when Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Tenet met the president in the Oval Office to present their intelligence information on the whereabouts of Saddam and Iraqi leaders.
In the three-hour meeting, with Mr. Bush already having signed off on the broad war plan, war advisers including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Vice President Richard B. Cheney, his chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Tenet and Gen. Myers the group weighed the alteration of the game plan.
At one point during the talks, Mr. Rumsfeld read to Gen. Franks portions of Mr. Bush's planned address to the American people that night announcing the start of hostilities to make sure the president was consistent with "how military operations were going to take place."
"When do we need to know by?" Mr. Bush asked.
Said Gen. Franks: "We need to know by 7:15 p.m."
After Mr. Bush gave the go-ahead order, "General Myers left the Oval Office, got the word to General Franks in the region, and the operation started," the official said.
A short time later, chief speechwriter Michael Gerson went to the Oval Office and the team worked on the final draft of the president's address.
The president then went to the residence for dinner with first lady Laura Bush. They were in the living room when White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. called to inform the president that intelligence officials had no information that Saddam had left Iraq.
Mr. Bush polished his remarks and headed back to the Oval Office to deliver them.
At 10:05 p.m., 10 minutes before his address, Mr. Bush got the first reports from Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Gen. Meyers "that all indications showed that the mission was successful and that the planes were on their way back," the official said.
"We didn't have any direct verification and it was stealth they were still in stealth mode but it did give at least the people on the ground in Qatar as well as the Pentagon more confidence at this point it was a successful mission."
Minutes before his speech to announce that America was now at war, Mr. Bush said: "Let's pray for the pilots."
At 10:40 p.m., after Mr. Bush had returned to the White House residence, he received a call from Miss Rice "to inform him that they were cleared from enemy air space and on approach back to from where they took off."
The official said war pressures had not distracted Mr. Bush from his routine, which includes near-daily physical exercise and sticking to a healthy diet. A health fanatic, he has given up desserts as he tries to improve his running times.
"At times like this, he tends to become even more disciplined than usual," the official said.
Mr. Bush began his morning yesterday with a 6 o'clock telephone update from Miss Rice and was in the Oval Office before 7.

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