On The Road To War, By Way Of The Azores

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.
As we near the four-year anniversary on Monday of the start of the War in Iraq, I was leafing through my notes leading up to that moment.

I noted it was four years ago today that President Bush flew to the Azores for a final face-to-face sit-down with his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

We knew that war with Iraq was imminent, though the exact time of the first attack was yet to be decided.

Blair was under enormous political pressure at home to give diplomacy one last chance before going to war and he and Mr. Bush agreed to meet – sort of half-way in the Atlantic to discuss their options. More to the point, they wanted to be seen giving peace one last chance.

It was a Sunday summit at Lajes Field Air Force Base on Terceira Island in the Azores. It was a 2658-mile journey from Washington, D.C.; 1571 miles from London.

For White House reporters, it meant a redeye to the Azores. The press plane, a United 767, left Andrews AFB about 10:30pm Saturday night arriving Lajes Field five hours later.

Because the Summit was hastily arranged, facilities for the press were at a premium. Reporters could not be guaranteed there'd be phone lines, and many of us brought portable satellite phones or GSM cell phones in order to file our reports. The networks shipped in a couple of "fly-away" satellite dishes in order to transmit coverage of the meeting.

We worked in a small building just off the tarmac of the airfield. When Air Force One landed, it parked just a short distance away.

The big news that day was an agreement by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair to give the United Nations – and Iraq – one last chance.

"Tomorrow is a moment of truth for the world," Mr. Bush announced at a joint news conference with Blair.

It wasn't immediately clear what the President meant by that, and thank goodness for reporter Ron Fournier of the Associated Press who got Mr. Bush to clarify his statement.

"At the end of the day tomorrow, one way or another, the diplomatic window has closed?" asked Fournier.

"That's what I'm saying," said President Bush.

"Tomorrow is the day that we will determine whether or not diplomacy can work," he explained.

Both he, and especially Blair, wanted the U.N. Security Council to specifically authorize the use of military force against Iraq if it didn't finally comply with demands to disarm.

But Mr. Bush had made clear his belief that the U.S. already had all the authorization it needed for war. He cited Security Council Resolution 1441, passed unanimously, and declaring that Iraq was in "material breach" of its obligations.

"Its logic is inescapable," said Mr. Bush. "The Iraqi regime will disarm itself, or the Iraqi regime will be disarmed by force. And the regime has not disarmed itself."

He went on to declare that "crucial days lie ahead for the world."

It proved to be a notable understatement. That next day, neither the U.N. nor Iraq took any further action.

That night, a Monday, President Bush used an address to the nation to deliver his final ultimatum to the Iraqi leader.

"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict at a time of our choosing."

Saddam stayed put. And two nights later, at 10:16 p.m. on March 19, 2003, Pres Bush addressed the nation once more to announce that American and coaltion forces were in "the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq."

Asked this morning how President Bush will mark Monday's four year anniversary, spokesman Tony Snow had nothing to announce.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.