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U.S. Aimed for Hussein as War Began

7:12 p.m.

The others came back in. Finally, the president said, "Let's go." It was three minutes before Franks's deadline.

Powell noted silently that things didn't really get decided until the president had met with Cheney alone.

President Bush meets with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, left, and Vice President Cheney, center, outside the Oval Office shortly after authorizing Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush said the day was emotional for him. "I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty, that there be minimal loss of life," he said. (Eric Draper -- AP)

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Myers went to the secure phone to inform Franks.

Rumsfeld emerged from the Oval Office and saw Gerson. "I was just butchering your speech," he said.

The president called out, "Gerson, come on in." Hughes and Bartlett were standing there.

"We're going after them," Bush explained.

"I don't understand," Gerson said.

"The intelligence is good," Bush replied, explaining that it showed they had a shot at Hussein and his sons. "Let's hope we're right," he added, choking up.

Rumsfeld's "butchery" of the speech was simple. He wanted the president to say that this was the "early stages" of military operations, and again in the second paragraph refer to the "opening stages" of war.

"I want to see you over in the residence when you're ready," Bush said to Gerson and Hughes, directing that the changes be made.

The two went up to Gerson's second-floor office and made the changes in a few minutes. Gerson was glad they were going to restore a line that had been cut from Monday's ultimatum speech. Referring to Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction, the line now read: "We meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities." Gerson thought it was the most vivid way to put it. The implication of avoiding another 9/11 would be clear.

Rumsfeld read the speech word for word to Franks over a secure phone to make sure he had no objections or suggestions. He had none.

Rice placed a quick call at 7:30 p.m. to Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about another matter. He said he already knew about the war and wished it would be fast and "bloodless."

She woke up David Manning, the British national security adviser.

"David, there's a little change in plans. And I'm sorry to say this, but I think you better wake the prime minister and tell him."

The President Prepares

Bush went to the residence. Card sat with him in the Yellow Room. Are you comfortable? the chief of staff asked. Are you ready to give the speech? He wanted to separate the two -- the decision to go after Hussein and the speech.

Yes, the president said, he was ready on both counts. Though he had asked all in the war cabinet, including Card, if they would do this, and each had said yes, he asked again. "You would do this?"

"Yes," Card said, "this is the right thing to do. Absolutely. Take this chance."

How long have the F-117s been up? the president asked. When do they get there?

The next report said they were in Iraqi airspace. There would be no more preliminary reports because they would be on radio silence over Iraq.

Hughes, Bartlett and Gerson went over to the residence. Unsure whether the president wanted to see them or just receive the speech, they asked the usher to check. If Bush was having dinner, they did not want to interrupt. The usher soon came back and escorted them up to the Treaty Room, Bush's private office. Gerson thought Bush was subdued and a little pale. For the first time he looked to Gerson a little bit burdened by all of this. The president took the speech and began to read it aloud: "My fellow citizens, at this hour . . .

"American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

He read through the 10 paragraphs and said it was fine. He had no changes. He walked them to the elevator.

Quietly, as if to reassure himself, Bush said again, "The intelligence is good."

'God Help Us All'

Rice called Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador. "Can I see you at 7:45?" she asked.

"Condi," Bandar said, "we have to stop meeting like this -- this hour. People will talk."

Normally any meeting after 6:30 p.m. was a kind of code word, meaning that Bandar would be seeing the president. Bandar had booked an entire small Arabian restaurant in Georgetown that night to dine with his wife, family and some friends. He told his wife to go ahead. He arrived in the West Wing lobby and noticed a photographer. Odd. When he was finally ushered in at 8:28 p.m., Rice stepped to her outer office to greet him. Flash!

Bandar jumped, saying, "I hope he works for you."

"Yes, yes, don't worry."

The photographer snapped again as they were about to sit down, and a third time after they sat.

"The president has " Rice began.

" . . . asked me to tell you," Bandar interrupted, completing her sentence, "that we are going to war."

It was obvious -- the ultimatum's expiration and the photographer. "I've been meeting you in this office for two years and I've never had a photographer in here. I'm not retiring to take goodbye photos. You're not retiring."

About 9 p.m., hell will break loose, Rice said. "And your friend, the president, insisted that you be informed immediately."

"Where is the president now?" Bandar asked.

"He is having dinner right now with the first lady and then he decided he wants to be alone."

"Tell him he will be in our prayers and hearts," Bandar said. "God help us all."

Rice's phone rang at 8:29 p.m.

"Yes, yes, Mr. President," she said. "No, I told him. . . . He's here. . . . Yes, he is with me. I told him. Well, he said you're in his prayers."

"He said thank you," Rice reported after hanging up. "Just keep praying."

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