WASHINGTON -- As the gloom of seemingly inevitable war settled over the White House yesterday, President Bush was described as ready to order a military attack against Iraq if today's deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait passes unmet.
"The basic consultations and decision-making that need to be done preparatory to the use of force have essentially been done," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
While refusing to signal exactly when such an attack might come, Mr. Fitzwater warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that "any moment after the 15th is borrowed time."
"I think the president has made up his mind," Mr. Fitzwater said. "He is prepared to use force if that is called for and if that is his final decision."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers who met with President Bush yesterday afternoon described him as tired, somber and pessimistic.
"He sees no possibility of Hussein withdrawing," said Representative John P. Murtha, D-Pa. "Now it's not a matter of if [the president] is going to go to war; it's a question of when."
It is considered now logistically impossible for Mr. Hussein to withdraw the 270,000 or so troops he has dug into Kuwait by tonight's midnight deadline. Nor has there been any diplomatic signal to suggest he is inclined to make any move.
But the White House continued to leave open the possibility that Mr. Hussein might have a sudden change of heart and begin a massive withdrawal that could be accepted as a good-faith effort.
"Every day that passes is a day for Saddam Hussein to choose peace over war," Mr. Fitzwater said. "Time always exists for him to take dramatic action that would avert this situation. There's never a deadline for peace initiatives."
Similarly, the White House would not rule out the chance that a last-minute peace mission -- such as those said to be contemplated by France, Yemen and Algeria -- might produce satisfactory results.
"We encourage peace initiatives at any point," Mr. Fitzwater said. "We won't turn off anybody."
The president, during his White House meeting with the lawmakers, did not give them any official notification of when an attack against Iraq might be launched. Now that he has formal approval from Congress for the use of force -- a resolution Mr. Bush signed yesterday -- he is not expected to notify congressional leaders of his decision to launch such an offensive until shortly before or even after it is under way.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Sadiq al-Mashat was recalled to Baghdad yesterday, State Department officials said.
Mr. Mashat, who frequently has appeared on American television to defend his country's actions, was a regular visitor to the State Department since the gulf crisis.