WASHINGTON - President Bush's bid to topple Saddam Hussein did not begin with the Sept. 11 attacks or with the war on terrorism. Rather, it was clear at an early meeting with his national security advisers, soon after he took office, that a post-Hussein Iraq was already a priority for him.
Much of that meeting dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participants said. But when the subject turned to Iraq, Bush's stance was plain: "Iraq was a priority, and regime change was one of the objectives," recalled Edward Walker, who was assistant secretary of state for the Near East.
Unlike President Bill Clinton, who hoped that covert U.S. backing for a coup or insurrection would rid Iraq of Hussein, Bush was open to the idea of using American ground troops, said Walker, a Clinton appointee who served Bush until May 2001.
"Bush's willingness to use ground forces," Walker said, "was the fundamental difference."
The president has pointed to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as central to his concern about the Iraqi threat. He has warned of the lethal nexus of rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction and terrorists.
The attacks, Bush said March 6, "showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction."
There is no doubt that Sept. 11 gave momentum to the goal of ousting Hussein. But the Bush policy had been set in motion months before, allowing a near-seamless progression from the war on al-Qaida in Afghanistan to the confrontation with Iraq.
White House officials say that there was "no date, no light-bulb moment" when Bush suddenly decided he would probably go to war. Rather, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has told aides of "a series of decisions."
It also appears that no one, including the comparatively dovish Powell, tried to dissuade Bush. From available evidence, Powell did not challenge the idea of toppling Hussein, though he had deep misgivings about the consequences of a pre-emptive invasion and wanted a good chance of success and support overseas. Powell focused on how - not whether - to do it.
The groundwork for that early meeting between Bush and his national security advisers had been laid during the previous decade, in the mounting frustration of a group of conservative intellectuals, several of whom now hold influential jobs in the Bush administration. These conservatives had become disturbed by the failure of various coup attempts, insurrections and air strikes to dislodge Hussein.
They shared a goal of reasserting a muscular American role in the Middle East. Some members of the group believed that anti-Western groups and autocratic regimes held back the region's progress and hindered a real peace between Arabs and Israel.
Few were as passionate about the need to oust Hussein as Paul D. Wolfowitz, a longtime policy-maker who had warned about Iraq's threat to American interests as early as 1979. Wolfowitz had opposed the decision of the first President Bush not to oust the Iraqi leader. In 1992, he drafted a strategy that foreshadowed the new Bush doctrine of pre-emptive force as a legitimate weapon.
Through the 1990s, Wolfowitz lambasted Clinton's policy toward Hussein, and helped build congressional support for "regime change."
Leading Republican policy figures, including Wolfowitz, signed an open letter to Clinton in 1998 calling for "a willingness to undertake military action" and for a long-term plan to remove Hussein's regime.
Other signers included a who's who of the top ranks of the current Bush defense and foreign policy hierarchy, including Rumsfeld; Peter Rodman, an assistant secretary of defense; Elliott Abrams and Zalmay Khalilzad, part of the White House national security team; Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; and Undersecretary John Bolton.
Wolfowitz and another leading anti-Iraq strategist, Richard Perle, were among the so-called Vulcans who advised the Bush campaign on foreign policy. On Iraq, campaign officials outlined a three-part strategy: strengthening sanctions, backing opposition forces and standing ready to use "decisive force." The long-term goal: "a Saddam-free Iraq."
When asked, Bush defends his father's decision not to carry the 1991 Persian Gulf war to Baghdad. Still, he saw his father stung by widespread criticism of that decision. And the president has remarked that Hussein's purported plot to kill Bush's father underscored the Iraqi leader's cold-bloodedness.
The younger Bush entered office "determined to do something about the Saddam problem," a White House official agrees.
In his first National Security Council meeting, the new president instructed aides to craft two sets of options, Walker said: a tightening of sanctions, and both clandestine and military action to topple the regime.
"Those around the table, including the president, were clearly regime-change supporters," said another official at the meeting, who declined to be identified. Participants were also skeptical that U.N. inspections could eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
By the early summer of 2001, a core of advocates for regime change were in place. At the Pentagon, they included Wolfowitz, Rodman and Douglas J. Feith, with Perle and R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, joining the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon.
Cheney chose a former Wolfowitz deputy, I. Lewis Libby, as his top aide.
Soon after Sept. 11, hard-liners began pressing to make Hussein a target of America's response to the terrorist attacks. No clear evidence pointed to an Iraqi role in the attacks. But some conservatives argued that terrorist networks could not function well without state support and that Hussein had a history of harboring terrorists.
To the surprise of some, Middle East nations such as Syria and Iran, with clearer ties to terrorists, were not seriously considered as key early targets of the war on terrorism. Bush "concluded there was an urgency to Iraq, given 11 years of unsuccessful efforts to disarm it" of weapons of mass destruction, a White House official said.
According to Bob Woodward's chronicle of the Sept. 11 aftermath, Bush at War, the day after the terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld raised with Bush the idea of going after Iraq.
On Sept. 17, Wolfowitz pushed the idea at a Camp David meeting Bush held with top aides, according to Woodward and others. But Powell said it would unsettle the anti-terror coalition he was building. Cheney said the timing was not right.
Bush decided his first priority was to build an international coalition against terrorists and to destroy the Taliban regime and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan. But in a secret directive he signed that day, he reportedly ordered that planning for an attack on Iraq continue.
At that meeting, less than a week after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush crossed a key threshold, according to a State Department official: He put Iraq "on the agenda" for military action after a war in Afghanistan.
For the next two months, administration officials said little publicly about Iraq. A perception took hold in Washington that the tight circle of hawkish officials surrounding Rumsfeld and Cheney had been rebuffed in their drive to make Iraq a key target of the war on terror.
But with the shock of Sept. 11, the hard-liners' vision of the Middle East gained favor in the administration, including at the very top. Ousting Hussein was seen as part of a broader goal of reasserting American power and influence in the Middle East to counter anti-Western regimes and groups.
In the fall of 2001 and into the winter, Bush pressed the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to "come up with a plan" for action against Hussein, the State Department official said.
In November, with the war in Afghanistan moving to a successful end, the campaign against Iraq gained more attention and then took on seemingly unstoppable momentum. Bush demanded that Hussein re-admit United Nations weapons inspectors, who had been barred by Iraq since 1998. Asked what would happen if Hussein balked, Bush replied: "He'll find out."
In late December, David Frum, then a speechwriter, says he was told to produce a passage for Bush's January State of the Union speech giving "our best case for going after Iraq." The speech would link Iraq, Iran and North Korea in an "axis of evil."
An overarching theme emerged in a June speech at West Point, where Bush unveiled his doctrine of pre-emption. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize," he declared, "we will have waited too long."
In August, Powell persuaded Bush to work through the United Nations and to support new weapons inspections. But Powell agreed, an aide said, that "any realistic analysis shows that Saddam Hussein and his regime are not going to disarm."