President Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons an ultimatum last night, warning in a national address that they must leave the country within 48 hours or face “military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing.”

“Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it,” the president said from the White House.

Also last night, the Department of Homeland Security raised the terror threat assessment to high, or “orange,” calling for an increase in security measures nationwide.

With war apparently just days away, the president urged all foreign nationals, including journalists and inspectors, to leave Iraq immediately.

Noting that the world had engaged in more than 12 years of diplomacy, Bush said “our good faith has not been returned” and “the Iraqi regime has used diplomacy as a ploy to gain time and advantage.”

“Peaceful efforts to disarm the Iraq regime have failed again and again, because we are not dealing with peaceful men,” Bush said.

Iraqi reaction

Iraqi leaders defiantly rejected Bush’s ultimatum today.

“Iraq doesn’t choose its path through foreigners and doesn’t choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv,” said a statement released by members of the Revolution Command Council and the heads of the ruling Baath party.

“The pathetic Bush was hoping … to achieve his evil targets without a fight through that declaration (the ultimatum) which reflects a state of isolation and defeat from which he and his pathetic allies are suffering from,” the statement continued.

Saddam’s son Odai called Bush “unstable” and challenged him to “give up power in America with his family.”

Odai Hussein also warned a U.S.-led attack will force Iraq to broaden the war against the United States.

Authority and will

The president’s warning to Hussein followed the withdrawal yesterday of a compromise resolution put before the United Nations Security Council last week by U.S. and UK diplomats. It laid out a series of benchmarks for Iraq and sought council authorization of the use of force against Iraq if it failed to comply.

However, the president reiterated the contention of U.S. and allied leaders that international law is on their side to proceed with military action.

Despite the failure to pass an 18th resolution, Bush said he believed the U.S. and its allies are authorized to use force in ridding Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction under resolutions 678 and 687, passed in the 1990s but still in effect.

“This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will,” he said.

Without mentioning the countries by name, Bush directed criticism at the members of the Security Council, led by France, who vowed to veto any new resolution authorizing military force.

“These governments share our assessment of the danger, but not our resolve to meet it,” Bush said.

“Many nations, however, do have the resolve and fortitude to act against this threat to peace,” he continued, “and a broad coalition is now gathering to enforce the just demands of the world.”

The president asserted: “The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours.”

France said yesterday in a statement from the office of President Jacques Chirac that the world did not back Bush’s ultimatum, warning that ignoring international opinion would carry a “heavy responsibility.”

‘Tyrant will soon be gone’

In a message to the Iraqi people, Bush made it clear that any military action will be directed at Saddam Hussein, and he promised to provide immediate aid and to help rebuild the country.

“The tyrant will soon be gone,” he said. “The day of your liberation is near.”

Bush gave instructions to Iraqi troops, offering them the chance to avoid loss of life by welcoming the U.S. and its allies.

“It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power,” he said. “It is not too late for the Iraq military to act with honor and protect your country, by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Our forces will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed.”

The president urged “every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services: If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life.”

Anticipating self-destructive acts by Iraq similar to those used in the 1991 Gulf War, Bush warned “all Iraqi military and civilian personnel to not destroy oil wells or obey any command to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, including the Iraqi people.”

“War crimes will be prosecuted, war criminals will be punished and it will be no defense to say, ‘I was just following orders,'” the president declared.

Bush made a further case for military action, apparently aimed at Americans still in opposition. A CNN-USA Today poll released yesterday showed Americans support military action by a 2-1 margin. However, the nation is evenly divided over whether the U.S. should attack without U.N. support.

“We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater,” he said. “In one year or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over.”

Bush said that with Hussein’s capabilities, he and his terrorist allies “could choose the moment of deadly conflict when they are strongest.”

“We choose to meet that threat now where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities,” the president said.

End of diplomacy

The final breakdown in diplomacy became apparent yesterday morning when British ambassador to the U.N. Sir Jeremy Greenstock announced the withdrawal of the proposed 18th resolution moments before the start of an emergency Security Council meeting.

“Having held several discussions with council members over the weekend and in the last few hours, we have had to conclude that council consensus will not be possible in line with Resolution 1441. One country in particular has underlined its intention to veto any ultimatum ‘no matter what the circumstances,'” Greenstock told reporters in a dig to France.

“Given this situation, the co-sponsors agree that we will not pursue a vote on the draft UK-U.S.-Spanish resolution,” he added.

U.S. ambassador John Negroponte echoed the British envoy.

“It has been nearly four and a half months since the council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441, which found Iraq in material breach and gave it a final opportunity to disarm or face serious consequences,” said Negroponte. “The government of Iraq has clearly failed to comply. Governments believe that through acts of omission and commission, Iraq is now in further material breach.”

Negroponte said allied leaders believed the vote on the compromise resolution would have been close but that France’s explicit threat to veto made the vote counting a “secondary consideration.”

In marked contrast to Negroponte’s statement, French ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said “the majority of the council confirmed they do not want a use of force” during one-on-one consultations in the past hours.

The resolution was scheduled to die without a vote yesterday because it had a March 17 deadline built into it.

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