Originally Published: March 18, 2003 6:10 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Edging to the brink of war, President Bush gave Saddam Hussein until Wednesday to leave his country and told Americans that military confrontation ultimately will make them safer.
Addressing Iraqis in his broadcast remarks, he pledged, "The day of your liberation is near."
Today, Iraq's leadership rejected the ultimatum, Iraqi television reported. It said the decision came out of a joint meeting of the Revolution Command Council — Iraq's highest executive body — and the leadership of the ruling Baath party. Saddam chaired the meeting, it said.
Earlier, Saddam Hussein's elder son rejected the demand, saying instead that Bush should resign. In a statement through the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, 39-year-old Odai Hussein said that Bush is "unstable" and that the U.S. leader "should give up power in America with his family."
Odai also warned that a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States.
In Washington, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle charged that a collapse of the administration's diplomatic efforts had brought an unneeded war.
"I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war," Daschle said in a speech to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country."
Iraq's United Nations Ambassador expressed sorrow too. "This will be really the very bad solution for the whole region, for Iraq, for the United States ... and for the humanity," said Mohammed Al-Douri. "This will destabilize not only the region but other parts of the world."
In Baghdad, Saddam denied again that he has weapons of mass destruction — even though he admits he once had them — and Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said Saddam wouldn't leave. "He will stay in place like a solid rock," he told the Al-Jazeera TV network.
In a prime-time speech, Bush likened the Iraq threat to those posed by perpetrators of genocide in the past century. "In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth," he said.
"Responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide," Bush said. "The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now."
Having abandoned diplomacy at the stubbornly divided U.N. Security Council, Bush set about trying to win over an equally divided American public. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found Americans just about evenly split on whether the United States should unleash military action without a new U.N. vote. Forty-seven percent supported such an action and 50 percent opposed it.
Bush often says that Iraq seeks to help "al-Qaida-type" groups, but Monday night he went a step further, saying Iraq has "aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaida."
The president gave Saddam 48 hours, starting at 8 p.m. EST Monday, to leave his country or face "military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing." He warned weapons inspectors and journalists to leave Iraq immediately.
Bush also cautioned Americans that war could result in domestic terror attacks, and the government raised the terror alert status to its second-highest level, orange, after he spoke.
"These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible, and this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail," Bush said. "The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed."
Bush spent Monday conferring with world leaders, most of them allies. He called British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski. Later in the afternoon, Bush spoke on the phone with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He also spoke to President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal.
With anti-war protesters chanting just outside the gates, Bush briefed about a dozen congressional leaders before his speech. Vice President Dick Cheney continued the briefing after the president left to prepare for his remarks.
There was no talk of how much the war will cost, but White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Cheney promised an appropriations request would be sent to Capitol Hill as soon as final costs were estimated.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he figured the price tag was "$100 billion and climbing."
The White House is likely to ask Congress for as much as $90 billion to pay for a war with Iraq and other expenses within days of the start of combat, congressional and administration officials said. The bill would also include aid for Israel, a key U.S. ally in the region, and money for anti-terrorism efforts at home, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.