WASHINGTON -- President Bush told the nation last night that he had ordered America into war because "the world could wait no longer."
Managing a small smile now and then, with his face showing no sign of strain, the commander in chief sought to put all of the
blame for war on Iraq's president, Saddam Hussein.
It was "the dictator of Iraq" who actually had started the conflict -- by invading Kuwait Aug. 2, Mr. Bush said.
The president spoke at 9 p.m., two hours after the moment Mr. Bush himself had fixed for the bombs to begin falling on Iraq's capital and on key military installations in that country.
As the fighting started, Mr. Bush was watching television news reports. In shirt sleeves surrounded by aides, the president was "very matter-of-fact and calm," press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
The first smashing blows at Iraq came only from the skies, the president informed the country. "Ground forces are not engaged," he said as he began the 12-minute, sober but not gloomy speech from the Oval Office.
Bombs were continuing to fall as he spoke, Mr. Bush said.
"Air attacks are under way against military targets in Iraq." He said Iraqi positions in Kuwait also had come under attack.
There was no mistaking his specific military goals in last night's beginning strikes. Ticking them off, the president said:
"We are determined to knock out Saddam Hussein's nuclear bomb potential . . . destroy his chemical weapons facilities [and] much of Saddam's artillery and tanks."
From the "initial reports" he said he had received from the U.S. commander on the scene, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the president said that "our operations are proceeding according to plan."
What Americans were fighting for, Mr. Bush indicated, was what he had said repeatedly -- since August -- were these goals: "Saddam Hussein's forces will leave Kuwait. The legitimate government of Kuwait will be restored to its rightful place, and Kuwait will once again be free."
Television journalists reporting live from a downtown Baghdad hotel had described what they saw as terrible destruction, but the president sought to reassure the people of Iraq that the United States' strategic aim was not total conquest. He said he ** was praying for the safety of "the innocents [in Iraq] caught in this conflict."
He spoke hopefully of the day when "Iraq itself" could "rejoin the family of peace-loving nations."
The main thrust of his message -- a speech he himself had written, according to aides, over a period of two to three weeks -- was the justification of the beginning of combat: the message that the world had waited long enough for Mr. Hussein to leave Kuwait.
The most ominous thing the president described as having happened while the world waited was that "Saddam sought to add to the chemical weapons arsenal he now possesses an infinitely more dangerous weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear weapon." Mr. Bush did not elaborate.
No gesture short of war remained to be tried, the president said he had concluded.
And as the planes continued to fly wave after wave of bombing missions across Iraq, Mr. Bush pronounced it "an historic moment" -- a moment which, aides said, he had personally chosen to arrive at 7 p.m. EST on Jan. 16, 1991.
As that hour approached, the president went up to his family quarters in the White House, had a sandwich, freshened up, and then went back downstairs to wait.
With Vice President Dan Quayle and three aides in the Ova Office, Mr. Bush watched television news accounts of the initial shellings of Baghdad. His press secretary said the president remarked: "This is just the way it was scheduled."
It was the president's decision, Mr. Fitzwater told reporters, to begin the U.S. attack promptly at 7 p.m., Washington time, last night.
The White House said it believed the attack did begin exactly at that hour, even though television news reports from Baghdad reported explosion-like flashes soon after 6:30.
Whatever those early explosions were, and the White House said it was somewhat confused by them, the press secretary said officials did not think they were U.S. bombs dropping ahead of the 7 p.m. hour for the first strike.
Mr. Fitzwater said he had rushed into the Oval Office when
reporters had come to him with reports of the early explosions. Although the press secretary had been given advance word of the bombing plan, he then went to the Oval Office to see what was going on there.
As the president watched the initial TV reports, he turned to Mr. Fitzwater, who was waiting for word to release the president's brief announcement that "the liberation of Kuwait" had begun. Mr. Bush said: "Go ahead and do it."
That brief statement had been prepared a day earlier.
Mr. Bush informed congressional leaders of his plans earlier in the afternoon, considerably ahead of the actual start of the air raids.