Saddam Hussein visited his troops in Kuwait, and President Bush rose at dawn for a solitary walk across the White House lawn Tuesday as the world slid to the brink of war.
The final day before the United Nations deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait passed with upraised fists and silent prayers and the stench of jet fuel blowing across desert sands.
When the long-awaited deadline finally arrived, at midnight EST, there were no immediate reports of war in the Persian Gulf.
Earlier, as Tuesday dawned in the Middle East, the more than 415,000 U.S. troops in the region and the 545,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq made final preparations for battle. Within hours, mass demonstrations began in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities as crowds dancing with pitchforks and swords vowed to support Hussein.
At first light in Washington, President Bush awoke and strolled the grounds before calling two clergymen and meeting with national security advisers. “The President is at peace with himself. He’s ready to make the tough decisions ahead that are necessary,” said his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.
From Iraq came a harsh rejoinder. “There will be no compromise on Iraq’s and the Arab nations’ rights,” Hussein told army corps and divisional commanders as he toured Kuwait and southern Iraq, according to Baghdad’s state-run media.
“It is Bush who wanted the war,” announced Iraq’s army newspaper, Al Qaddissiya. “But let him know that the furnace of hell will be open to the Americans and to their allies when they come.”
By midday, a final French peace plan had sunk beneath the twin burdens of Iraqi silence and American resistance, and diplomats conceded that they had run out of ideas.
“Initiatives from France have not found the least response from the Iraqi side,” French Prime Minister Michel Rocard told members of his Parliament in Paris. “There is a fatal moment where one must act. This moment, alas, has arrived.”
A few hours later, six hours before the midnight EST deadline, U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar spoke in a crowded meeting room at U.N. headquarters in New York and issued a final appeal for peace:
“As 15 January advances and the world stands poised between peace and war, I most sincerely appeal to President Saddam Hussein to turn the course of events away from catastrophe,” he said.
“I have every assurance once again from the highest levels of government that with the resolution of the present crisis, every effort will be made to address, in a comprehensive manner, the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the Palestinian question,” he added.
A similar plea came from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, whose nation has about 30,000 troops in the gulf supporting the U.S.-led multinational force.
“One word can save all our destinies and fates. Only one word and we can have peace,” Mubarak said in a nationwide television broadcast. “There are only a few hours left before the destiny is decided of what may be the most dangerous event for humanity for half a century.”
Perez de Cuellar’s statement, drafted after Security Council members were unable to agree on a consensus statement of their own, was carefully written to offer a mild form of what diplomats call “linkage” between an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait and the plight of the Palestinians.
Bush and his advisers object to linkage because they fear it would be seen as a reward for Iraq’s aggression. For that reason, U.S. diplomats opposed the French peace plan, a six-point proposal that would have directly linked the two issues in a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Hussein, however, has never said he definitely would withdraw from Kuwait in exchange for a peace conference. His silence in response to the French plan and the unyielding statements attributed to him by Iraqi radio and television offered little hope for compromise.
As civilians fled Iraq’s capital and the last Western diplomats closed their embassies, Hussein’s Baath party organized mass demonstrations, with crowds shouting “Victory to Saddam!” and denouncing Western powers. “The hour of jihad has arrived!” read one banner in the city’s Palestine Square, proclaiming the battle against American forces to be a holy war.
And in the final hours, preparations for that war, rather than hopes of peace, dominated world capitals.
“We are not thirsting for war,” British Prime Minister John Major told the House of Commons. But, he added, “if it comes . . . I believe it would be a just war.”
In Canada, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said his nation’s small, 1,800-man force in the gulf would join in any military attack against Hussein.
American officials, for their part, expressed confidence in the ability of U.S. forces--about 245,000 Army soldiers, 45,000 Air Force personnel, 50,000 Marines and 75,000 sailors on a fleet of more than 100 ships, including six aircraft carriers.
On possibly the last day of peace, those forces conducted final preparations, flying combat patrols and practicing with artillery, machine guns, missiles and helicopters.
The troops, backed by roughly 265,000 allied soldiers, including 35,000 from Britain and 10,000 from France, are “ready to execute any order we might receive from the President,” said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.
Except for crowds of anti-war demonstrators at the White House, the United Nations and other major sites, the deadline hour itself passed quietly. Lights did not burn late in government buildings, and aides said they believed that Bush had slept through the midnight hour.
Early today, the White House issued a statement from Bush that said, “Jan. 15 was a day for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. It was not a deadline for U.N. action. The choice for peace remains with Saddam Hussein.”
In Saudi Arabia, NBC News reported evidence that U.S. forces had begun jamming high-frequency Iraqi radio signals, perhaps as a prelude to an attack, but there were no other immediate reports suggesting war might be close.
“Who does not shiver as the war drums are heard?” asked one call to prayer issued in Jerusalem, and, indeed, in the face of imminent war, prayer became the recourse to which many people across the world turned.
In Israel, which Hussein has threatened to attack with missiles if war breaks out, about 20,000 Jews prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
In Rome, Vatican officials said Pope John Paul II planned to spend the deadline hour, 6 a.m. in Italy, praying for peace in his private chapel.
And White House officials said that Bush, after his morning walk, telephoned two religious leaders, Edmund Browning, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, to which Bush belongs, and the Rev. Richard C. Halverson, chaplain of the Senate.
Bush “told them both that he had been praying for peace during these troubled times,” said Fitzwater. “He asked them to pray for the country.”
Meanwhile, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which since the Vietnam War has borne the grim duty of receiving the bodies of the fallen, officials recruited volunteers to assist the three full-time morticians at the base’s mortuary, the military’s largest.
The mortuary has a capacity of 1,000 bodies; if casualties exceed that, refrigerated trucks would be used to store bodies, officials said.