The Day The War Began

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.
It was a long day at the White House four years ago on this date.

It was a Wednesday. And we knew war with Iraq was imminent.

Two days earlier, Pres. Bush had addressed the nation to announce the utlimatum he was serving on Saddam Hussein and his sons: "leave Iraq within 48 hours."

"Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing," said Mr. Bush.

The clock on that demand was to run out at 8:00PM that night, March 19, 2003.

Covering the White House that day was an exercise in waiting.

As the day progressed, it was clear the climax was near.

At his midday briefing, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told us that Pres Bush began the day speaking by phone with his closest ally on Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr. Bush got his daily intelligence briefings and then convened a meeting of the National Security Council. And the White House issued a presidential notice to Congress that military action was about to be taken. Here's the way I reported it on the radio at 11:00AM:

CBS News. I'm Mark Knoller – live at the White House.

Another sign that war is imminent as President Bush formally notifies Congress he may soon exercise the authority to use force against Iraq.

A bill passed last October, requires the President to inform Congress when he determines that military action must be taken against Iraq.

His message states that reliance on diplomatic and other peaceful means - will no longer protect the US against the threat posed by Iraq.

The 48-hour ultimatum clock stops ticking in 9 hours. But Saddam has already rejected President Bush's demand that he leave Iraq. And White House spokesman Ari Fleischer leaves it deliberately vague when asked if military action could start before the deadline.

By 1:00 p.m., Fleischer had finished his press briefing, and I included a soundbite of him in my next report:
With just seven hours on the ultimatum clock for Saddam Hussein, it doesn't look to the White House as though military action can be avoided.

FLEISCHER: "With just a short amount of time to go before the deadline, we have not received unfortunately any indication from saddam Hussein that he intends to leave the country."

Spokesman Ari Fleischer says when the deadline is reached in seven hours, the American people will know that Saddam has commmited - quoting now - his final act of defiance. Mr. Bush formally notified Congress this morning that he may have to exercise the use of force it authorized in a bill passed last October.

Hour after hour, I reported again and again on how the President appeared to be moving the nation to war. On the late edition of the World News Roundup at 7:00PM/Eastern, this was what I said:
If the deadline passes and Saddam doesn't get out, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the Iraqi ruler will have committed his final act of defiance. With war imminent, President Bush formally notified congress that he may soon order military action against Iraq. Under the terms of the law authorizing the use of force, Mr. Bush told the House and Senate that diplomatic efforts had been exhausted. If it comes to war, the White House hopes it will be short, but spokesman Fleischer says there are many unknowns, the conflict could be of "some duration," and Americans should prepare for the loss of life.
We would only learn later, that in a private meeting with his National Security team late that afternoon, President Bush gave the order to attack.

But it was only after the first explosions were being reported from Baghdad, that spokesman Ari Fleischer gave the first official U.S. Government confirmation at about 9:45 p.m.Eastern Time, that the war was underway and that President Bush would address the national in 30 minutes.

I can't recall a more important report in my career than the one I gave in the 11:00 p.m. newscast that night.

CBS News. I'm Mark Knoller – live at the White House.

The war is underway.

BUSH: "At this hour - American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

In a brief address to the nation 45 minutes ago, President Bush said that on his orders - selected targets of military importance had been struck. He said the opening salvo was designed to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war.

He stressed that the US is not alone in this action - that more than 35 nations are giving crucial support.

BUSH: "Every nation in this coalition has chosen to bear the duty and share the honor of serving in our common defense."

Speaking from the Oval Office, Mr. Bush said the only way to limit the length of the war is to apply what he called "decisive force." He pledged it will not be a campaign of half measures - and the only outcome that will be accepted is victory.

I still feel a chill as I read the radio reports I did that night.
After months of warnings, and pledges to act if the UN didn't, President Bush told the nation that the war to disarm Iraq had begun. In a speech from the Oval Office, he made clear that decisive force would be brought to bear. He said it's the only way to limit the duration of the conflict.

BUSH: "And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory."

Mr. Bush said the US enters this conflict reluctantly and with no ambition in Iraq other than to remove a threat - and restore control of the country to its own people.

President Bush offered no estimate of how long it would take to achieve his goals in Iraq.
Some 35 minutes after the first strike on Baghdad, Pres. Bush took to the air to say that the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime was underway.

BUSH: "The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder."

In a four minute speech from the Oval Office, Mr. Bush said U.S.- led forces would make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm. But he said "decisive force" would be used so as to limit the length of the conflict.

Looking back, nothing he said that night suggested that four years later, the U.S. would still be militarily engaged and suffering grievous losses.

But then as now, Pres Bush predicts ultimate victory.

"...We will accept no outcome but victory." – President Bush, March 19, 2003.

"...The fight is difficult, but it can be won. It will be won if we have the courage and resolve to see it through." – President Bush, March 19, 2007.

I can only wonder, what I'll be reporting in four more years.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.