WASHINGTON - After more than a decade of bitter diplomatic struggle, months of threats, weeks of mobilization,and days of tension, President Bush required only five minutes of national television time yesterday to transform the effort to free Iraq from Saddam Hussein from the realm of words to the reality of war.
With dawn breaking in Baghdad and with pictures of his wife, twin daughters, and dogs prominently displayed behind him, the President underwent a personal transformation himself, becoming a wartime president.
The nation entered the conflict reluctantly, he said, “yet our purpose is sure.” But, he stressed, “This will not be a conflict of half-measures.” It would, he solemnly warned, be a long and sustained effort.
“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,” the President said.
``Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. 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.
“We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities,” Mr. Bush said.
As White House offices were being stocked with bottled water, Meals Ready to Eat, and cots, Mr. Bush prepared for war, aides said, with a clean desk, a calm demeanor and an unshakable sense he was doing the right thing.
They conceded there is more risk than when he ordered troops into Afghanistan last year to oust the Taliban but insisted the President is just as certain the United States will prevail again.
Until he went on TV, Mr. Bush was out of the public eye in the fateful hours as his 48-hour deadline to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq passed. There was only a White House photo of Mr. Bush in an Oval Office armchair in front of the fireplace talking for half an hour about possible terrorist threats with New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
For two days, after Mr. Bush imposed the 48-hour deadline, the world waited for the long-heralded massive assault that could soon unfold.
Mr. Bush was told, aides said, that almost overnight support in the United States for war had escalated from 59 percent to 71 percent. But aides said the poll data seemed almost irrelevant to him as he prepared to make the momentous decision of ordering men and women to put their lives on the line for their country.
The former president, George H.W. Bush, who was a dive-bomber pilot in World War II, was up before dawn the day he started the first Persian Gulf War, tense, tired, angry, and frustrated as he resolved that war had to be declared. But he was also grimly resolved not to be swayed from a course on which he was willing to stake his place in history.
His son, who has never personally seen war, seems much less conflicted about the responsibility of sending soldiers into harm's way. He and his wife ate dinner in the residence at their normal time as he waited for definitive word from White House chief of staff Andy Card that Saddam Hussein had ignored the 8 p.m. deadline to leave Iraq and was still in the country.
But, like his father, Mr. Bush seemed to have no doubt he was acting in the country's best interests. He was, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, “confident” in his decision.
In a development that signaled action was imminent, Vice President Dick Cheney was in the White House yesterday, meeting throughout the day with Mr. Bush. Mr. Cheney served as secretary of defense during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and since 9/11 has often been out of the White House in an undisclosed location to ensure continuity of government should there be an attack on the White House.
Mr. Cheney has said several times recently that President Bush has never wavered from his decision that Saddam Hussein had to leave power. Seeing President Bush every day, seven days a week, Mr. Cheney said, he thinks the President “has a great capability that I think is absolutely essential in an effective leader, and that's the ability to cut to the heart of the issue.''
Mr. Bush sent Congress a one-page letter serving formal notice that war was imminent, a letter required by the congressional resolution last November authorizing force against Iraq. He also included a seven-page report that said reliance on “further diplomatic and other peaceful means alone” was not enough to stop “the continuing threat posed by Iraq.''
Mr. Bush's message focused on the need to disarm Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and speculated that a military attack could lead to the discovery of information that would allow the apprehension of terrorists living in the United States. An attack, it said, “is a vital part of the international war on terrorism.”