Cover Story

THE RUN-UP TO WAR

Issue: "Year in Review 2003," Dec. 27, 2003

The rockets' red glare. Bombs bursting in air. As the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, Americans staring into the blazing darkness overhead could be excused for wondering: Was it a party-or a portent?

The year 2003 made its debut with doubts and ambiguities hanging as heavy in the air as the odor of smoking fireworks. With U.S. troops mobilizing for a massive deployment overseas, the celebrations that lit up the skies all across the country seemed to foreshadow far deadlier pyrotechnics yet to come. Saddam Hussein was defiant, President Bush was determined, and the United Nations was divided. Even as a huge crowd in Manhattan counted down the final seconds before the traditional ball-drop, another, unseen clock was ticking off the final days of a brutal dictator.

For many, the extraordinary security precautions on New Year's Eve were a visible reminder of just how dangerous the world had become. Some 2,000 police officers were deployed around New York City, including sharpshooters stationed on the rooftops surrounding Times Square. Officials sealed manhole covers and removed mailboxes from street corners. Skies were closed to aircraft, and recreational boats were banned from New York Harbor.

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Throughout the opening months of 2003, the Bush administration often tapped into that lingering fear of terrorism to build support for its hard-line policy toward Iraq. In his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, the president warned darkly that "evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications and statements by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.

"The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," Mr. Bush continued, dismissing the objections of sometime allies such as Germany and France. "Whatever action is required, whenever action is necessary, I will defend the freedom and security of the American people."

Even as he pursued a unilateral military buildup in the Persian Gulf, swelling U.S. forces from 50,000 to 250,000 in a matter of weeks, the president simultaneously battled for international support. A week after his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush deployed Colin Powell for a high-stakes mission at the United Nations. The secretary of state used maps, charts, satellite images, and information from Iraqi defectors to make the case that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction in defiance of UN resolutions.

But days later, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix presented his own report, undermining what appeared to be a nascent move toward the U.S. position. Iraq continued to drag its feet, Mr. Blix admitted, but Saddam Hussein had recently shown "a more active attitude" in accounting for its alleged stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Caught off-guard by Mr. Blix's conciliatory comments, Mr. Powell set aside his prepared speech, launching into an impromptu plea for the world's support. "These are all tricks that are being played on us," Mr. Powell said. "These are not responsible actions on the part of Iraq. These are continued efforts to deceive, to deny, to divert, to throw us off the path."

By mid-February, however, it was obvious to all that the path could have but one destination, and that nothing could distract the president from his goal of regime change in Iraq. Day in and day out for weeks on end, some 600,000 pounds of supplies had been arriving in the Persian Gulf, and troop strength already topped 150,000. Near Doha, a state-of-the-art command center had sprung up seemingly overnight, shimmering like a mirage in the Qatari desert.

In early March, U.S. forces were fully deployed, awaiting the go-ahead from their commander in chief. Britain, Australia, and Spain were onboard, but most of the rest of the world was ambivalent or openly hostile. Already committed to overthrowing the Iraqi regime, President Bush sought one final resolution from the UN Security Council setting a firm deadline of March 17. When talks collapsed on the 17th without a vote by the world body, the president took to the airwaves that same evening.

"All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end," Mr. Bush declared. "The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours." He gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq. After that, he said, U.S. forces would attack "at a time of our choosing."

Just over 50 hours later, when the president again appeared before the American people, the fateful choice was already made.

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