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US, Iraq Prepare for War as Saddam Hussein Defies Bush Ultimatum - 2003-03-19

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has rejected President Bush's ultimatum to leave the country within 48 hours or be toppled by an U.S.-led invasion. Both the United States and Iraq are preparing for war as the deadline for the Iraqi leader's departure, set for Wednesday evening Washington time, draws near.

Saddam Hussein was shown on Iraqi television Tuesday meeting with his Revolutionary Command Council, the country's top decision-making body. It was an image Baghdad wanted the Iraqi people to interpret as a show of resolve in the face of President Bush's ultimatum Monday night.

"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict," the president warned.

Mr. Bush remained out of sight Tuesday but his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters Saddam Hussein's refusal to leave would be the last mistake he makes.

"The president also made plain to the American people that, if Saddam were to leave, the American forces, the coalition forces, would still enter Iraq, hopefully this time peacefully because Iraqi military would not be under orders to attack or fire back and that way Iraq could be disarmed from possession of weapons of mass destruction," said Mr. Fleischer.

But Iraq's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri lashed out at both the United States and Britain. Iraq, he says, has already given up its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as demanded by the United Nations.

"We have done everything required from us in accordance with the resolutions of the Security Council," he said. "The ball is now in the court of the warmongers in Washington. It is Mr. Bush who should go into exile because Mr. Bush is endangering the whole world."

Here in the United States, the terrorist alert status has again been elevated to "high" with the government warning Americans of the likelihood of more terrorist attacks in the event of war. Increased protection is being given to everything from the nation's airports to its food supply. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge expects those who seek to attack the United States may do so while the nation is at war.

"This instance, we have again, not only continued credible information from within the intelligence community but bin Laden himself has said in recent weeks that military action in Iraq would be a rallying cry," he said.

Britain and the United States have supplied the bulk of the quarter of a million troops now poised to go to war against Iraq once President Bush gives the order. In the absence of a United Nations mandate, Secretary of State Powell says some 30 countries have agreed to take part in what the administration calls a coalition of the willing to disarm Iraq. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer admits very few of them will actually be doing any of the fighting.