WASHINGTON - President Bush gave the order to go to war last night shortly before 7 p.m. Soon after, he retired to the White House residence to have dinner with his wife, having made a decision that could define his presidency and change the United States' role in the world.
Bush's order came toward the end of an Oval Office meeting with military advisers that lasted more than 3 1/2 hours, far longer than usual for a president who is sometimes short on patience and demands that advisers be brief and to the point.
A senior administration official said that when the meeting began, no final order had been made to launch strikes on Baghdad. But by the time the session was over, Bush had decided to accept the recommendation of senior advisers that the military act quickly. Within hours, allied planes were targeting a section of Baghdad, aiming for Iraqi leaders, apparently including Saddam Hussein.
"There was always in place some flexibility in the plans," the senior official said, speaking to reporters at 11 last night. "And obviously, at this unusual third meeting today, [advisers] handed information to the president that he acted on."
The late-day meeting had not been on Bush's schedule on a day that began early for the president with a string of intelligence and military briefings, during which Bush reviewed battle plans and weather conditions in Iraq. The day ended with a brief but momentous address from the Oval Office, where Americans learned that the nation was at war.
Bush looked somewhat weary during his four-minute speech, his eyes blinking often as he spoke somberly and sought to display confidence. He told the nation that "we will accept no outcome but victory," but he also wanted to tell Americans there were many unknowns.
"A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California," Bush said, "could be longer and more difficult than some predict."
With much of the world opposing war, Bush sought to persuade his audience that the United States was not acting alone in its attack on Iraq. He took pains to argue that a "coalition" of more than 35 nations was supporting it.
Going to war was a decision, aides said, that the president was entirely comfortable with. He is convinced that Hussein, if left in power, could pose a grave danger to the United States and friends by allowing his weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists.
It is a decision fraught with enormous risk. The war that Bush began has run into stiff resistance from many of his usual allies around the world and from some Americans who remain unconvinced that the president has justification to pre-emptively attack a sovereign country that has in no clear way provoked war.
Late Tuesday, Bush sent a seven-page declaration to Congress, stating that diplomatic efforts had failed and war to remove Hussein from power was necessary. "The president of the United States has the authority - indeed, given the dangers involved, the duty - to use force against Iraq," his declaration said, "to protect the security of the American people and to compel compliance with [United Nations] resolutions."
Yesterday morning, Bush spoke by phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest ally on Iraq. The political futures of both men may well hinge on the outcome of the attack that began last night.
The president also held a morning meeting with his top foreign policy advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, both of whom played prominent roles when Bush's father waged war against Iraq more than a decade ago. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, also attended.
Bush, hoping to demonstrate to the country his concern about retaliatory terrorist attacks on the United States that could result from the war, invited Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to the Oval Office, along with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose city is seen as a potential target.
At 3:40 p.m., Bush convened the unscheduled meeting with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and his military advisers, including Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director George J. Tenet. The president, in the first three hours of the meeting, became convinced that the military had a chance to launch targeted strikes on Baghdad that it could not let pass.
Once Bush issued the order, just before 7 p.m., the mood changed throughout the White House, whose staff had already become nervously curious about the nature of a meeting that lasted much longer than usual.
The president left the meeting about 7:15, and met briefly with Michael Gerson, his chief speechwriter, to review his Oval Office speech to the nation. Bush was already familiar with words that were being drafted for days.
At 8 p.m., when Bush's ultimatum to Hussein to leave Iraq or face a U.S.-led attack expired, the president was finishing dinner with his wife, Laura, in the living room of the White House residence. At that moment, he received a call from his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card, informing him that, according to intelligence reports, Hussein had defied Bush's demand and remained in Iraq. Bush took last looks at his speech.
Then, just after 9:30 p.m., close to his usual bedtime, the president returned to the West Wing. The camera feed of Bush, sitting at his Oval Office desk, came on moments earlier than expected. Some journalists caught a glimpse of Bush, turning to someone in the room, his speech in front of him, and pumping his fist.
"I feel great," he said.
And at 10:15 p.m., he told the country he had taken it to war.