UNITED NATIONS/WASHINGTON–DC (Reuters)–The United States and its allies on Monday abandoned diplomacy and prepared to deliver a final ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to go into exile or face a massive military onslaught.
As Washington cut short diplomatic efforts to win UN authorization for the use of force against Iraq–UN weapons inspectors and other foreigners scrambled to evacuate Baghdad ahead of a US aerial bombardment–followed by a ground invasion to kill or capture Saddam and dismantle his government.
Saddam rejected suggestions he flee the country to save it from war–with Iraq’s foreign minister saying "any child” in Iraq knew that President George W. Bush’s ultimatum was a nonstarter.
The United States and Britain have 280,000 troops poised to attack and are expected to quickly overwhelm Iraqi defenses. But they could still face severe challenges if the Iraqis use chemical weapons or decide to defend Baghdad street by street.
Bush scheduled an address to the American people on Monday evening to explain why he thought war was necessary unless Saddam left Iraq immediately.
"He will say that to avoid military conflict–Saddam Hussein must leave the country,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The next move will be up to Saddam Hussein.”
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the time for diplomacy had passed.
"I can think of nothing that Saddam Hussein could do diplomatically. That time is now over. He has had his chance. He’s had many chances over the last 12 years and he’s blown every one of those chances,” he said.
Still–Bush–who is betting his presidency on the war–was expected to give Saddam a brief window–perhaps 48 or 72 hours–to depart before the shooting started.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister–Naji Sabri–quickly dismissed that idea. "The only option (to secure peace) is the departure of the warmonger number one in the world–the failing President Bush who made his country a joke,” Sabri said.
The attack could begin within hours of the UN inspectors leaving Iraq which they were expected to do on Tuesday.
British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock announced at the United Nations a US-British-Spanish resolution authorizing war would not be put to a vote.
A short time later UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the withdrawal of UN staff from Iraq. "We seem to be at the end of the road here. Obviously it’s a disappointment and a sad day for everybody. War is always a catastrophe,” Annan said.
The United States and Britain blamed France–which threatened a veto against the resolution–for its defeat. But France’s UN ambassador–Jean-Marc de la Sabliere–said the real reason was that "the majority of the council confirmed they do not want to authorize the use of force.”
He also proposed a foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday on the Iraqi crisis when chief UN inspector Hans Blix is due to give another report.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released on Monday found 50 percent of Americans opposed to war if the United States attacked Iraq without a new vote–while 47 percent approved.
After months of uncertainty–shares on Wall Street and in London rallied strongly on hopes the war would finally begin soon and bring a swift US victory. World oil prices slumped as dealers bet war would be short and inflict limited damage on Middle East oil flows.
Bush says Saddam has illegal weapons of mass destruction that he might give to groups such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization. Saddam admitted on Monday Iraq once had such weapons–during the 1980s–but no longer possessed any.
UN weapons inspectors started checking out of hotels in Baghdad. A transport carrier was stationed at Baghdad airport ready to evacuate the more than 300 international staff.
Several nations closed their embassies–some foreign journalists were also leaving and Russia told its nationals to get out of Iraq. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was leaving 10 international staff in Iraq.
Britain and the United States also advised their civilians to leave Kuwait–which will be a launch pad for any invasion of Iraq. Washington reduced its diplomatic support staff and dependents in other Middle Eastern countries as well–to lower the risk of revenge attacks on its citizens.
Bush–British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had agreed on Sunday to give diplomacy one more day in hopes of winning a Security Council majority but quickly abandoned the attempt.
Bush spoke to both Blair and Aznar on Monday morning and the decision was made to end the talking at the United Nations because it was clear they could not get a majority.
"The United Nations has failed to enforce its own deman’s that Iraq immediately disarm. As a result–the diplomatic window has been closed,” Fleischer said.
The United States was guaranteed the support of only Britain–Spain and Bulgaria on the 15-nation Security Council.
Public opinion in Europe–Asia and the Middle East has been overwhelmingly opposed to a war. Anti-war leaders are likely to argue that by going to war without Security Council sanction–the US is violating the UN Charter and international law.
"We believe the use of force against Iraq–especially with reference to previous resolutions of the UN Security Council–has no grounds–including legal grounds,” said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
But Powell said: "We believe that our actions now are supported by international law.” The United States argues it has the authority to disarm Iraq under a long series of previous UN resolutions dating back to the last Gulf War.
The United States and its allies have argued Saddam continued to pursue and conceal chemical and biological weapons programs that posed a deadly threat.
In London–Blair faced a political crisis. Much of his Labor Party opposed war and Robin Cook–the British government’s leader in parliament and former foreign secretary–resigned in protest. One more minister was expected to follow.
The British parliament will vote on Tuesday on participating in a war–with the opposition Conservatives expected to cancel out any rebellion in Blair’s party.
Reporters with US and British units in Kuwait spoke of increased military activity on their side of the Iraqi border while jittery Baghdad residents stocked up on food and gas.