Washington -- The decision to begin the ground war against Iraq at 8 p.m. last night was made nearly two weeks ago, for purely military reasons, and was neither sped up nor slowed down by the Soviet diplomatic maneuvering of the past few days, the White House said last night.
On Feb. 11, President Bush approved a plan presented to him by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that authorized Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, allied commander of Operation Desert Storm, to begin the ground offensive at his discretion within a "window of dates."
Shortly after, General Schwarzkopf chose Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and proceeded to direct his forces toward that goal with the understanding that only a decision from the president would reverse it, according to White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
A diplomatic breakthrough such as Soviet diplomats worked to achieve in the past few days would have prevented the offensive, Mr. Fitzwater said. But the Iraqis never agreed to comply with the terms of unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait that Mr. Bush considered mandatory.
The progress made by the Soviets in winning concessions from the Iraqis prompted Mr. Bush to specify his criteria for withdrawal in the Rose Garden ultimatum delivered Friday morning. But the decision to issue an ultimatum to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that he must make clear his intentions by yesterday at noon was dictated by military considerations, the spokesman said.
General Powell suggested the deadline at a late-night meeting with Mr. Bush and other top advisers Thursday night because he knew the ground offensive was scheduled to begin a few hours later.
A ground offensive had been part of the allied war plans for months, Mr. Fitzwater said. The original outlines of it were shaped during October and November, even before the major buildup of U.S. troops in the gulf began.
By Jan. 15, when Mr. Bush signed the National Security Directive that authorized U.S. military forces to go into combat, the ground offensive was included as a second phase of the campaign to begin sometime after the air war.
Although U.S. officials will not say how long the air war was estimated to take before the ground campaign began, Mr. Fitzwater said it was prolonged somewhat by the hunt for Iraq's Scud launchers, which took some bombers and reconnaissance planes away from other military targets.
Mr. Cheney and General Powell determined that the offensive should begin about this time after meeting with General Schwarzkopf and other field commanders in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 8 and 9.
No further order was given to General Schwarzkopf once yesterday's date was selected for the ground war to begin, and Mr. Bush has not talked personally to him for some time.
The military leaders were monitoring the diplomatic maneuvers yesterday to learn whether Saddam Hussein had notified the United Nations of his acceptance. When the noon deadline passed without the notification, Mr. Bush made it clear in a terse statement issued by his spokesman that he considered his ultimatum to have been ignored.
Mr. Fitzwater said that was the only form of signal given by Mr. Bush to his military commanders. Nor was the president personally informed when the ground war had begun.
Mr. Bush was strolling on the grounds of Camp David with Secretary of State James A. Baker III when the noon deadline passed. He spent most of the rest of his day on the telephone, informing allies and supporters of what was about to take place.
Among those he called were British Prime Minister John Major, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Turkish President Turgut Ozal, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had called Mr. Bush shortly before the deadline to asked him to delay the ground offensive for two more days but was turned down. Mr. Bush did not tell Mr. Gorbachev the ground action was set to start in a few hours.
The president got his first report on the military action when he returned to the White House last night from Camp David to inform the nation that the final phase of the liberation of Kuwait was under way.
Walking into the Oval Office, Mr. Bush turned to Mr. Cheney and said, "What have we heard?"
He looked very drawn and strained when he appeared before reporters a few moments later. Mr. Fitzwater described Mr. Bush as "somber, serious."
"He understands the magnitude of the operations and the risks involved. He's concerned about possible loss of life. He knows this is a dangerous mission," Mr. Fitzwater said.