WASHINGTON -- President Bush announced last night that he had ordered his military commanders to "use all forces available, including ground forces," to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait and said he had complete confidence that this "final phase" of the Persian Gulf war would end "swiftly and decisively."
The announcement came about 10 hours after Iraq ignored Mr. Bush's ultimatum to start withdrawing from Kuwait by noon yesterday.
The actual date and timing of the ground war had been tentatively decided for some time, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said later, but had been subject to change depending on the weather or developments on the diplomatic front.
The preparations would have been stopped had Iraq complied with the deadline set by President Bush on Friday, the secretary said.
Mr. Bush said the decision to launch a ground campaign had been made "only after extensive consultations within our coalition partnership."
"The liberation of Kuwait has now entered a final phase. I have complete confidence in the ability of the coalition forces swiftly and decisively to accomplish their mission," Mr. Bush said in a televised statement from the White House briefing room after returning by helicopter from Camp David.
He asked Americans to "stop what you were doing and say a prayer for all the coalition forces, and especially for our men and women in uniform, who this very moment are risking their lives for their country and for all of us."
The massive ground assault came a day after the United States had issued a detailed set of terms that Iraq would have to accept if it wanted to avoid a ground war, including the start of a rapid withdrawal by noon yesterday.
Yesterday afternoon, the Iraqi leadership angrily rejected the U.S. demand:
"The U.S. ultimatums are nothing but aggressive ultimatums that we do not care about, because we are at war with them, and the air and land aggression is continuing," said Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, according to a Baghdad radio report monitored by U.S. agencies.
President Bush's aim, a senior official said recently, was to present Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with a choice: either turn tail and run or be forced out.
Mr. Cheney asserted anew last night that it was not a U.S. objective to change the Iraqi government. But U.S. officials expected a ground war to so weaken Iraq's military that it would be ill-equipped to continue its alternate role of protecting the Hussein regime.
Although the prospect of ground fighting had stirred widespread anxiety early in the conflict, prompting many on Capitol Hill to urge a prolonged air campaign, by the time it started it was politically popular.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released yesterday said that as of Friday, 86 percent of respondents said they would support a land campaign "if that's what it takes to get Iraq out of Kuwait." Six out of 10 said the ground war should start right away if Iraq did not withdraw, according to an ABC press release.
In the hours before the deadline, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose announcement Thursday of agreement with Iraq -- on terms unacceptable to the United States -- led to the Bush ultimatum, made a final effort to broker a peace in a series of telephone calls to world leaders.
Late last night, the Soviet Union led another bid at the United Nations Security Council to merge the U.S. withdrawal terms with its own weaker ones and spur an Iraqi withdrawal. But "TC U.S. official virtually dismissed the effort, saying it had been "overtaken by events."
Mr. Cheney said later that the United States was "not interested" in a cease-fire before withdrawal, as called for in the Soviet plan, saying it would allow Iraq to regroup and resupply its forces.
He also said there had been a deliberate effort by Iraq to destroy further what was left of Kuwait, and he opposed the notion, included in the Soviet proposal to drop all U.N. resolutions after -- withdrawal, of allowing Mr. Hussein to get off scot-free without paying reparations.
The United States clearly was anxious to preserve cooperation with the Soviets, however. Secretary of State James A. Baker III called Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh just before leaving Camp David with President Bush at 9 p.m., their third conversation of the day.
Mr. Baker and other top State Department officials also made "notification calls" about the ground war last night to all coalition partners; U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar; all members of the Security Council, including China; and Israel.
In his last-ditch peace effort, President Gorbachev, speaking to President Bush for 28 minutes starting at 11:15 a.m., appealed for a merger of U.S. and Soviet terms, which called for a one-week and a three-week withdrawal period, respectively.
He also asked for a one- or two-day delay in a ground war to give the U.N. Security Council a chance to pursue efforts to merge the two sets of terms, according to Gorbachev spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko.
The White House didn't say flatly at the time that Mr. Bush had rejected the idea, but the Security Council ended a closed-door session yesterday afternoon with no new developments.
"President Bush thanked President Gorbachev for his extensive efforts and reflected our general disappointment that Saddam Hussein has chosen not to respond positively," said a statement by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
Later, in a brief exchange with reporters at the White House, Mr. Fitzwater said that "the ground offensive could come at any time."
There were scant hopes during the day that Iraq might be yielding. At the Security Council, Soviet Ambassador Yuli P. Vorontsov said Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz had found "favorable elements" in the U.S. proposal, a U.S. official said. But Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations would say only that Iraq had accepted the Soviet initiative.
Friday's U.S. ultimatum demanded that Iraq publicly accept the terms and "authoritatively" communicate its acceptance to the United Nations.
Later, Mr. Ignatenko said at a televised news conference that there were hints that Iraq did not see much difference between the Moscow proposals, which it accepted, and the U.S. terms. He predicted that Iraq's attitude "will be changing."
But he also said that "today Iraq has lost this chance to make use of this good will," referring to the Kremlin's mediation efforts, and that if there was hope, it was that "the regime in Iraq will have the guts to withdraw its forces."
Mr. Ibrahim, in the Baghdad radio report, complained about the short timetable in the U.S. terms.
"Bush, who claims to have experience in armies, has shown by such talk that he knows nothing about armies or the requirements for their . . . withdrawal.
"It seems that he is still living under the influence of U.S. movies and their unsuccessful star, Rambo," Mr. Ibrahim said. He added that Mr. Bush, "the devil himself," had issued successive statements and "continuous ultimatums" to divert attention from the Soviet initiative.
But as of midday yesterday, U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia had detected no Iraqi indication of pulling out, the White House said.
"Similarly, there has been no communication between Iraq and the United Nations that would suggest a willingness to withdraw under the conditions of the coalition plan.
"Indeed, [Mr. Hussein's] only response at noon was to launch another Scud missile attack on Israel," Mr. Fitzwater said in a statement.