BAGHDAD (Reuters/Independent)–Saddam Hussein rejected an ultimatum to quit Iraq and vowed on Tuesday to fight a US-led invasion that could start in just over a day–and which Britain said could define world affairs for decades.
President George W. Bush gave the Iraqi leader 48 hours– until early Thursday Baghdad time–to flee or he would unleash US and British forces massed by the frontier in Kuwait.
The response never seemed in doubt and 12 hours later state television showed Saddam making a rare appearance in uniform.
It quoted him telling his cabinet he would emerge the victor from a war that has opened a raw schism in world opinion–split the West and won Bush just a thin "coalition of the willing.”
"The meeting stressed that Iraq and all its sons were fully ready to confront the invading aggressors and repel them,” the television announcer said–reading a cabinet statement.
"The wives and mothers of those Americans who will fight us will weep blood–not tears,” Saddam’s elder son Uday said.
The United States disagrees and is banking on the swift victory it will need to mend fences with critical allies.
"The tyrant will soon be gone,” Bush said in his brisk–13-minute address from the White House on Monday night after he abandoned diplomacy at the split UN Security Council.
He urged Iraq’s soldiers to surrender rather than be killed by the high-tech firepower of 280,000 US and British troops. US officials said they were bombarding Iraqi units with leaflets–broadcasts and emails with the same message.
UN arms inspectors left Iraq on Tuesday. French and Greek envoys also pulled out–leaving few diplomats in Baghdad–whose people prepared for the worst.
BUSH DEFIES UN CRITICS
Defying many UN allies and leaving much world opinion against him–Bush defended his right to wage what he portrayed as a pre-emptive war against September 11-style terrorism.
"The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities–so we will rise to ours,” he said.
"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their failure to do so will result in military conflict–commenced at a time of our choosing.”
The deadline is 4:15 a.m. Iraqi time (0115 GMT) on Thursday. Most military experts expect a war to begin at night–though a full moon this week might lessen the cover darkness may give.
Bush–whose father George confronted Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War to free Kuwait–but with far stronger world backing– put the United States on its second-highest level of alert against terrorist reprisals.
Nations around the world were divided over Bush’s strategy.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair–his closest ally–battled in parliament to subdue a rebellion among his own Labour supporters that has seen three government ministers resign.
"It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation,” he said of the Iraq issue.
It would decide the handling of 21st-century security threats–the UN’s future–the transatlantic balance–relations within Europe and how Washington engaged with the world.
The former Leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook–launched a blistering attack on the Government’s case for war and accused it of "diplomatic miscalculations" after he became the first cabinet member to resign over Iraq. He told the Commons he could not "defend a war with neither international agreement nor domestic support"–and proceeded to dismantle government policy in an electrifying resignation speech.
The junior Health Minister Lord Hunt announced that he too had decided to go–saying: "It’s such a critical issue that I thought it wouldn’t be right for me to stay when I didn’t support the Government."
Home Office minister John Denham then became the third MP to quit the Government over Iraq–saying: "I cannot support the Government in tonight’s vote."
French President Jacques Chirac led those world leaders who accused the United States of being reckless with the unrivaled power it has enjoyed since the Cold War and of flouting the will of the United Nations in a way that may fuel global instability.
"There is no justification for a unilateral decision to resort to force,” he insisted–saying Iraq did not represent an immediate threat and that UN disarmament had been working.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Bush by telephone that he regretted the ultimatum against Iraq.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said war meant "certain death to thousands of innocent men–women and children.”
INSPECTORS PULL OUT
With war looking inevitable–the United Nations drew down the curtain on 12 years of frustrated efforts since the Gulf War to ensure Iraq has no chemical–biological or nuclear arms.
UN inspectors flew to Cyprus from Baghdad.
"We’re sad that we’re leaving. We know that we could have stayed longer to finish our job,” one said. Global financial markets took heart from the hope a quick US victory would end months of uncertainty hanging over the world’s biggest oil-producing region.
Brent oil prices dropped 10 percent and stock markets jumped after Bush’s speech. Wall Street edged higher at its opening. OPEC said the oil producer group would ensure adequate supplies.
WORLD OPINION DIVIDED
Bush said Iraq might provide weapons of mass destruction to groups like Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda Islamist radicals–whom he blames for the September 11 attacks and who were the object of the US campaign against the Afghan Taliban 18 months ago.
Not to pre-empt that would be "suicide,” Bush said.
Many Western leaders share his skepticism of Iraqi denials of having banned weapons and his distaste for Saddam’s record over three decades in power.
But some disagree about the extent of Saddam’s possible sponsorship of terrorists and argue–as Muslim states have–that war may simply fuel more violence in the Middle East and beyond.
Bush supporters like Britain–Spain and Italy accuse doubters like France–Germany and Canada of repeating the mistakes of those who appeased Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.
Turkey–a NATO ally–appeared to soften resistance to helping US forces–though possibly only by opening its airspace and not by letting US troops cross it to invade Iraq.
Few soldiers expect the Iraqis to put up much of a fight. But they are ready for bitter guerrilla warfare from Saddam loyalists with little to lose–and for chemical attacks.
Israelis–targeted by Iraqi Scud missiles in the 1991 Gulf War–began sealing rooms against chemical or biological warfare.
Terrified of reprisals–thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled the city of Arbil in their northern region beyond Saddam’s control.