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Blair Steady in Support

The diplomatic planning was over. "You know," Bush said, "we're going to, we have to keep planning for a future postwar Iraq, and we all agree on the five basic principles. Territorial integrity has to remain. We need immediate, we need to be ready with humanitarian aid to get it in there immediately to head off any food or displaced-persons crisis."

The United Nations would continue its oil-for-food program, Bush said. "We have to build an international consensus for Iraq, a new Iraq, at peace with its neighbors, and we'll go back to the U.N. for another resolution after the war. The U.N. can help with many issues but should not run the country."

Bush jokes with Blair in February 2001. During talks on Iraq, Bush said he did not want to see Blair's government go down. (Doug Mills -- AP)

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He made it clear that the coalition would be in charge.

When the meeting broke up, Rice saw chief White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, who had come with Bush on the 4,600-mile round trip to the Azores so they could work on the ultimatum speech. "Do you have a copy of the speech?" Rice asked, and she handed it to Blair.

Gerson was a little bug-eyed. It was about as closely held a document as there might be. At the same time, Gerson realized that it could have a tremendous impact not only on American politics but also on the course of British politics because of the impending vote of confidence in Parliament. Gerson noticed that Campbell, Blair's communications and strategy adviser, was reading the copy and jotting notes.

The British wanted the speech to be more conditional, with the phrase or concept "if war comes" liberally sprinkled throughout. Though it implied war, it should not be a war speech. A kernel of hope for a peaceful solution had to remain.

Blair had to get home to tend to the politics of war and rebellion in his party. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. noted that Blair had been filled with both resolve and angst. It wasn't confident resolve. Rice thought it was very much touch-and-go about Blair's future. As she stood watching the British depart, she said, "Gee, I hope this isn't the last time we see them."

On Air Force One, Bush and Rice agreed it was now just a matter of managing the politics of the United Nations and not pulling the plug before Blair had his vote in Parliament. Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett, the former and current communications directors, joined them, and they went over the speech draft line by line. The British suggestions were acceptable, and Gerson went back on one of the plane's computers and carefully put in the changes.

After Gerson was finished, he joined the president and all the others who were about 10 minutes into the Mel Gibson movie "Conspiracy Theory." Bush loudly summarized the plot, and during the rest of the movie he made fun of it as fairly predictable.

Blair's Day of Reckoning

In a 15-minute call the next day, Monday, March 17, Bush and Blair, back in their respective capitals, coordinated efforts to make sure there was no counter-resolution. They agreed that the Russians would have to be talked to at various levels.

Blair said his prospects looked better, but it was still tough for him right now. "I think I can win," Blair said. "I'm concerned about the margin of victory. I don't want to depend on Tory votes. I want to win my own party strong. I know I'm not going to win them all, but I don't want the Tories to be able to say without us, you would have lost, and I'm working hard on the Labor Party to make sure I get a very clear solid majority of the Labor votes."

Tuesday, March 18, was Blair's day of reckoning. Even some of his leading critics called his one-hour speech in Parliament that day one of his most effective and passionate.

"In this dilemma, no choice is perfect, no cause ideal," Blair said. "But on this decision hangs the fate of many things."

At 1:30 p.m., Bush called Blair to say, "Tremendous speech."

"I know now I've got the votes to win the resolution," Blair said, "because the whip counters have been up all night working away. And the only question is the margin, but I'm confident."

They talked about the need to give Russia, France and Germany a way back into the fold.

Bush had never paid such close attention to a debate or vote in a foreign legislature as the one going on that day in the British Parliament. "What's the vote count?" he had asked a number of times during the day.

Finally, at 5:15 p.m. -- 10:15 p.m. London time -- Parliament voted. Blair won by 396 to 217. Though he had lost a full third of his own party's vote, the Tories -- and Britain -- had voted for war.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

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