WASHINGTON, March 17 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush Monday gave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face attack by the nearly 300,000 U.S., British and Australian forces that now ring the desert oil nation.
"It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power," the president said in a nationally televised speech. He said if the Iraqi dictator chose confrontation, "the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it."
In a firm voice, standing at podium in the White House Cross Hall, Bush said "Americans understand the costs of conflict because we have paid them in the past. War has no certainty except the certainty of sacrifice."
But if battle became necessary, Bush said, "the only way to reduce the harm and duration of war is to apply the full force and might of our military, and we are prepared to do so."
It would be the first time in history that the United State has attacked a nation without direct provocation.
The president urged journalists, arms inspectors and humanitarian workers to leave Iraq as soon as possible. Earlier in the day, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan ordered U.N. workers to leave. Bush's deadline would be 48 hours after he completed his remarks, about 4:15 a.m. Thursday Iraqi time. Hostilities would begin after that at a time of the coalition forces' choosing, Bush said.
Bush's father followed a similar path in 1991, giving Iraq until Jan. 15 to abandon Kuwait with coalitions forces beginning hostilities early Jan. 16. The senior Bush spoke to the American people as cruise missiles began landing in Baghdad.
Bush in Monday's speech issued sharp warnings to the Iraqi armed forces. "It is not too late for the Iraqi military to act with honor and protect your country, by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction." He urged military and security forces "not to fight for a dying regime that is not worth your life."
The president said the Iraqi forces should not destroy the country's oil fields, which he said belong to the Iraqi people, or use any of the chemical, biological or nuclear weapons that the Iraq allegedly possesses. "War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say 'I was just following orders,'" Bush said.
The ultimatum came at the end of two days of swiftly moving events. Bush and the leaders of England, Spain and Portugal, blunted by Russian and French veto threats in the U.N. Security Council last week, met in a hurriedly prepared summit in the Azores Sunday. They agreed that March 17 would be the last day of diplomacy in the Iraq crisis.
Monday morning, U.S. and British representatives decided against seeking a vote on the U.N. resolution that they had proposed several weeks ago to try to get Security Council support for force. "The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities," Bush said Monday. "So we will rise to ours."
Bush defended that the legitimacy of using force by saying that he acted under powers given in several U.N. resolutions passed after the first Gulf war ended in 1991 -- 678 and 687 -- and under U.N. Res. 1441, passed unanimously Nov. 8 by the Security Council.
"The danger is clear: using chemical, biological, or one day nuclear weapons, obtained with help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other," Bush said.
"Instead of drifting along toward tragedy, we will set a course toward safety," he said.
Warning that an attack on Iraq could raise dangers elsewhere, Bush announced "Operation Liberty Shield," a comprehensive, national plan that increased security at the nation's borders, inside transportation systems and readies federal response resources in the event of a terrorist attack. Within minutes of his mentioning the effort, the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level to "high" and began tightening up border locations.
Very quickly, both Democrats and Republicans fell in behind Bush. "Like many Americans, I have raised questions about whether military action at this time is the best way to disarm Saddam Hussein, and whether we have exhausted every other alternative. Sadly, we stand on the brink of war," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, House Democratic leader. "If our troops are ordered into action, Americans will support and stand united behind our courageous men and women in uniform who will bear the burden of that action."
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said "If the president decides that force is the only remaining option to disarm Saddam Hussein, Democrats and Republicans will be unanimous in our strong support for our troops and for ensuring that they have all the tools and resources needed to be successful."
Bush met with congressional leaders late Monday as he prepared to deliver his speech.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said it was important to support the president and that leaders were assured during the discussion that Bush would deliver a second speech to the American people to talk about his vision for what happens after the war is over.
"I have been assured -- though I am not satisfied -- that there is a clear plan for after the shooting stops," Biden said.
It was Monday morning when the White House declared that the diplomatic window for dealing with Saddam was officially closed and said he must leave the country to avoid military conflict.
"The United Nations has failed to enforce its own demands. The diplomatic window is now closed," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer announced at the morning briefing.
Former presidential aide Karen Hughes, who helped craft Bush's speech, told reporters that the president would be specific about a deadline for Saddam and that he would summarize the U.N. resolutions Saddam had failed to heed.
It was late afternoon when reaction began filtering down from Capitol Hill. Response from lawmakers to the potential of war had been muted but statements slowly were issued calling for national unity and moral support for the president.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he stood firmly behind the president's authority to confront Saddam and rid Iraq of his oppressive dictatorship.
"There is a proper time and place for vigorous debate, but now is the time for America to speak with one voice," DeLay said.
Speaking out early was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who said that he too stood behind the president's decision, saying that for 12 years and through 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions Saddam had "flouted the will of the world" by refusing to disclose and destroy his stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.
"If military action is necessary, the fault will clearly be Saddam Hussein's. But if the world fails to stand strong and together and recognize that force is necessary to enforce the United Nation resolutions, responsibility for that failure, unfortunately, will be broadly shared."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, at Monday morning news conference in Washington, expressed disappointment that the United States was not able to obtain approval for a new resolution authorizing force against Iraq. But he stressed that whatever action the United States takes is supported by international law.
Powell said that Saddam and his government must go.
"Clearly, we would want to see Saddam Hussein depart, as well as immediate members of his family who are in positions of control and authority over the armed forces of Iraq," he said.