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Bush, Rumsfeld Meet for Last Minute War Planning - 2003-03-18

President Bush is involved in "last minute planning" for military action against Iraq, which has rejected a U.S. ultimatum that Saddam Hussein give-up power by Wednesday or face war.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says President Bush still hopes Saddam Hussein will take his ultimatum seriously and leave the country. But Mr. Fleischer says the president is now proceeding on the assumption that the Iraqi leader will not step down and military action will be necessary.

"Saddam Hussein has led Iraq to many mistakes in the past, principally by developing weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Fleischer said. "Saddam Hussein, if he doesn't leave the country, will make his final mistake." President Bush Monday gave the Iraqi leader 48 hours to step down or face a U.S.-led invasion to topple his government and disarm the military.

The president met Tuesday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to review "last-minute planning" for an attack on Iraq.

Mr. Bush also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin who opposes military action in Iraq. Mr. Fleischer says the two leaders agreed on the importance of maintaining good relations despite their disagreement over Iraq.

"They agree about the threats in the region, but it is no secret that they don't see eye-to-eye on whether the use of force is a required remedy to make Saddam Hussein disarm," he said. "But the two of them in the phone call did stress to each other the importance of maintaining good U.S.-Russian relations and both expressed confidence that would indeed happen."

Russian officials say President Putin expressed his disappointment over the U.S. ultimatum. French President Jacques Chirac said a war against Iraq is unjustified and would threaten world stability and the future of Middle East peace.

President Bush Monday ended diplomatic efforts to get the United Nations to force Iraq to disarm by not submitting to a vote a draft resolution that France said it would veto.

The French Ambassador to the United States told the CNN television network Tuesday that, if Saddam Hussein were to use chemical or biological weapons against U.S.-led forces, that could change the situation completely.

Mr. Fleischer called that a "notable statement" but said the Bush administration hopes that eventuality "never comes to pass."