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The two words that started the war

Published Mar 21, 2003

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By Steve Holland

Washington - President George Bush had only three minutes left to decide when he gave the order to start a war on Iraq with an attack on senior Iraqi leaders, believed to include President Saddam Hussein.

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"Let's go," Bush told his war council, as recounted by senior White House officials on Thursday.

CIA Director George Tenet and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had sought an urgent meeting with Bush on Wednesday to discuss last-minute intelligence that they believed showed they had a fix on the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad.

Bush gathered his war council in the Oval Office to hear the intelligence and after meeting for more than three hours, they all recommended he seize the opportunity to kill some of Iraq's top officials.

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He sought guidance from General Tommy Franks, the US Army general directing the war on Iraq, who told Bush he had to decide by 7.15pm (00h15GMT Thursday) in order to give the military time to put the plan in motion.

Bush went around the room and asked each member of his team for their recommendation. After hearing unanimous approval, he gave the order at 7.12pm, with three minutes to spare.

Warplanes were already in the air but could have been turned around if Bush had decided against the operation.

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There was no indication that Saddam was hit in the attack.

During the meeting, aides said there had been constant activity between the Oval Office and that of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who had a secure telephone line open to Franks and others.

At one point, Rumsfeld read to Franks portions of Bush's planned four-minute speech to the American people that night announcing the start of hostilities to make sure Bush was characterizing the operation correctly.

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Aides described Bush as completely immersed in war planning that started in earnest early on Wednesday morning with a crucial meeting in the White House Situation Room.

Commanders in the field were connected by videoconference and Bush addressed each one in turn.

When Franks, at Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan Airbase, had difficulty operating the audio system and pressed the wrong button to talk, the tension broke.

"Don't worry, Tommy, I haven't lost faith in you," Bush told him to laughter.

Bush looked at each of the nine commanders of the air, land, and sea forces and set in motion the overall military plan to invade Iraq.

"For the peace of the world and the benefit and freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom," he told them.

It was Wednesday around 8am, with 12 hours to go until the expiry of a deadline for Saddam to go into exile.

Officials said that war pressures had not distracted Bush from his routine, which includes near-daily physical exercise and sticking to a healthy diet. A health fanatic, he has given up desserts as he tries to improve his running times.

"At times like this he tends to become even more disciplined than usual," a senior official said.

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