A solemn President Bush put the nation and the world on a war footing Monday, issuing an ultimatum to Iraq's Saddam Hussein to step down within 48 hours or face sure destruction "at a time of our choosing."
In a 15-minute address from the front hall of the White House, the president also delivered three messages to Iraqis and Americans: He promised Iraqis that war would not be aimed at them. He warned Iraqi troops not to resist U.S. forces. And he pledged to Americans to do his utmost to protect the home front from possible retaliation.
"Free nations have a duty to defend our people by uniting against the violent. And tonight, as we have done before, America and our allies accept that responsibility," Bush said.
The president's deadline means that war could begin as early as Wednesday night, Washington time -- the predawn hours of Thursday in Iraq.
Bush stressed that he believes the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of war. "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. "We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities."
Around the world, nations and international organizations prepared for a war that many oppose but now feel is inevitable.
The United Nations ordered weapons inspectors and other personnel out of Iraq, in effect halting the inspections process many felt was leading to partial disarmament. Witnesses said early today that a plane carrying the inspectors had taken off from Baghdad on a flight bound for Cyprus.
Foreign diplomats shuttered embassies and prepared to leave the country, and Iraqis stocked up on supplies, taped windows, took their children out of school and climbed aboard buses heading out of the capital.
"For their own safety, all foreign nationals -- including journalists and inspectors -- should leave Iraq immediately," Bush said.
Just after the speech, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the national threat level to orange, or "high," the second-highest level. Ridge cited intelligence reports that in the event of a military campaign against Iraq, "terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and coalition targets worldwide."
"These attacks are not inevitable. They are, however, possible," Bush said. "And this very fact underscores the reason we cannot live under the threat of blackmail. The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed."
Bush said his remarks were being translated and broadcast into Iraq, and he said he had a message for the Iraqi people: "If we must begin a military campaign, it will be directed against the lawless men who rule your country and not against you. As our coalition takes away their power, we will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free."
At the same time, he urged the Iraqi military to give up without a fight.
"Our forces will give Iraqi military units clear instructions on actions they can take to avoid being attacked and destroyed," Bush said. "I urge 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."
Then he added a threat: "War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.' "
The call to war had been expected since Sunday, when Bush and allies Britain and Spain held an emergency summit in Portugal's Azores islands and announced that diplomacy would be halted in 24 hours.
Hours later, on Monday morning, the three withdrew from the U.N. Security Council a proposed second resolution seeking authorization for military action. Under the threat of vetoes from France and Russia, the resolution had failed to attract the nine votes needed to pass.
In his remarks, Bush reviewed the failed diplomacy and accused the United Nations and "some permanent members of the Security Council" -- France and Russia -- for faltering.
"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, and a broad coalition is now gathering to enforce the just demands of the world. The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours."
Bush asserted that even without a new resolution, the United States has a legal right to use force to disarm Iraq.
He cited two resolutions passed in the early 1990s at the time of the Persian Gulf War. And he recalled that Resolution 1441, passed unanimously in November, promised "serious consequences" -- a diplomatic euphemism for military force -- if Iraq failed to disarm.
"This is not a question of authority, it is a question of will," the president said.
Bush reviewed the history of the United Nations, saying it had been formed in the ashes of World War II to prevent the rise of new dictators.
"In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators, whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth," Bush said.
Critics describe the impending campaign as a "preventative war," which has generally been considered illegal under international law. Bush argued that because of the threat that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction, that standard should change.
"Terrorists and terror states do not reveal these threats with fair notice, in formal declarations. And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense, it is suicide."
Bush said "public and private messages" urging Hussein to step down had been delivered in recent days by various Middle Eastern nations. Iraqi officials rejected the idea that Hussein would go into exile.
"He will stay in place like a solid rock," Iraq's Information Minister Mohammed Said Sahaf told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite TV network.
The United States and Britain have more than 200,000 troops deployed around Iraq and primed for military action. Early today, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said about 2,000 Australian troops in the region would also be allowed to join the impending campaign.
Reversing course, Turkish leaders indicated Monday that they will again ask parliament to allow the United States to move troops and equipment into Turkey and open a front in northern Iraq. Despite Ankara's earlier refusal, U.S. ships remain off the coast of Turkey. It is unclear whether they could unload quickly enough to make a difference in a military operation.
The decision to raise the terrorist threat level was announced immediately after the president's speech in a flurry of calls between Ridge and other homeland security officials and the nation's governors, state and local homeland security advisors, business leaders and representatives of Mexico and Canada.
Raising the threat level, said one U.S. official, "was due to a large volume of intelligence reporting across a wide range of sources, some of which are highly reliable, which indicates Al Qaeda probably would attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, claiming they were defending Muslims or the Iraqi people rather than the Saddam Hussein regime."
Bush's speech had been in the works for two days, White House officials said.
It was drafted jointly by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson and political advisor Karen Hughes aboard Air Force One on Sunday night as the president and his aides returned from the Azores.
Bush will address the nation from the Oval Office when he decides to start military action, officials said.
The president said he understood the gravity of his decision and expressed confidence that the American people were prepared for the costs of the conflict.
"War has no certainty, except the certainty of sacrifice," he said.
Bush's Republican allies in Congress welcomed his resolve and backed his conclusion that further diplomatic efforts would be fruitless.
"The president has shown great patience and given diplomacy every chance to work, but as he stated tonight -- the time to act has arrived," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Democrats who supported last fall's congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq expressed disappointment that Bush did not organize more international support but rallied in the name of national unity.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) urged Bush to continue trying to build international support for postwar efforts to rebuild Iraq.
The cost of the war and possible postwar expenses loom as the next big fight in Congress. As soon as a military campaign begins, Bush is expected to ask Congress for new funding to pay for the war; some estimate the request will be in the range of $100 billion.
At Camp Matilda, desert headquarters for the 1st Marine Division, troops listened to the president's speech on a radio at 4 a.m. Kuwait time, as trucks loaded Marines and gear for what was described as a previously scheduled exercise in moving the force north, closer to the Iraqi border.
Early foreign reaction to Bush's speech was mixed. Australia and Japan rallied behind the American president. But mostly Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia criticized the ultimatum. Mexico said it regretted that war seemed inevitable. And France said ignoring international disapproval of a war would carry "heavy responsibility."
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Robin Wright, Josh Meyer, Janet Hook and Johanna Neuman in Washington contributed to this story.