-- President Bush somberly warned 4,000 young soldiers Friday to prepare for war with Iraq, promising to unleash the full force of the U.S. military if Saddam Hussein does not seize a final chance to disarm.
Bush invoked a moral imperative for an attack on Iraq after U.N. inspectors report their findings Jan. 27, telling members of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division that they "will be acting in the finest traditions of America, should we be forced to act."
"We are ready. We're prepared," Bush told cheering soldiers in a gymnasium at the nation's most populous military base. "Should Saddam Hussein seal his fate by refusing to disarm, by ignoring the opinion of the world, you will be fighting not to conquer anybody, but to liberate people."
The commander in chief, with first lady Laura Bush at his side, teared up as the troops sang: "The Army's on its way. Count off the cadence loud and strong. Two! Three!"
Bush has the delicate task of preparing U.S. forces for war while convincing potential allies abroad that he will not act rashly or before the U.N. inspections process has played out.
Bush said he would prefer voluntary compliance by Hussein, adding that it is not too late to prevent war. "Even now, he could end his defiance and dramatically change directions," Bush said. "He has that choice to make."
But White House officials said neither Bush nor his top advisers expect that to happen. And Friday's visit was a sign of the war footing taking hold throughout the administration. Bush's aides have scheduled no presidential travel for February, and ambassadors have been instructed to sound out their host countries about contributions to future military, humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
At the same time, the administration is trying to calibrate its response to North Korea's nuclear threats. When a reporter asked Bush on Thursday about going to war, he said, "With which country?"
Bush, in what aides called a deliberate effort to continue drawing a distinction between the crises, devoted one sentence to North Korea in his 20-minute speech, saying the world "must continue to speak with one voice, to turn that regime away from its nuclear ambitions."
Bush noted that 2,900 troops from Fort Hood are serving abroad or preparing to deploy, some to the Persian Gulf. "In the months ahead, more soldiers from Fort Hood may be given other essential missions," he said. "Some crucial hours may lie ahead."
Units are shipping out of U.S. bases almost daily. Pentagon officials said 60,000 troops are in the Persian Gulf region, a number that could double in coming weeks. On Friday, the Marine Corps said troops and aircraft from California had been ordered to the region.
White House officials said they do not expect Bush to make a decision before Jan. 27, when weapons inspectors are to report to the U.N. Security Council about Iraqi cooperation with the search for weapons of mass destruction. "We're looking forward to that report," a senior administration official said. Bush's State of the Union address is the next day, and officials said they believe that is when Hussein's time will have run out. "The president has been patient for a long time," the official said.
The Bushes interrupted a 10-day holiday stay at their ranch to fly to Fort Hood to eat roast beef and corn with soldiers and their families and to review freshly shined helicopters and rocket launchers.
Several soldiers said they view war with Iraq as inevitable, and also the right course for the nation. "I'll be proud to get the chance to do my job," said Paul Freeman, 24, a technician who sets up cellular communications towers. "We need to keep world peace."
But such talk is tempered for soldiers who will be leaving families behind. Chris Knox, 20, a combat medic, has started taking his son Joshua, 3, with him when he walks the dog -- hoping to spend as much time as he can with his son.
The 42,000 troops at Fort Hood are part of the 3rd Armored Corps, which calls itself "America's Hammer," in reference to the heavy tanks and attack helicopters from here that were a crucial part of the allied victory in the Persian Gulf War, and are an important component of Pentagon plans for Iraq.