Iraq Bombings: The Countdown: Clinton called the PM from Air Force One: `Get ready for strikes'

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NOT NORMALLY the most cheerful of locales, the United Nations Correspondents' Association club in UN headquarters in New York was seething on Tuesday evening. The club's annual Christmas party started at 6pm and reporters were flocking in for free drink and eats and for a relaxed end-of-year gossip among friends. There was even a small tree, clad in homemade decorations and white cotton wool.

But reporters, even when they are drinking, never retract their antennae altogether. The party was in full swing when some among them began to guess that their work was not done for the day.

Minutes earlier, the guest of honour had arrived, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, and with him had come a gaggle of his close advisers. A few of them had some news to impart and it was very important.

It had been two hours since Richard Butler, chairman of the UN special commission on disarming Iraq, Unscom, had delivered to Mr Annan a 10- page report that would become of utmost significance. It was his assessment of the level of Iraq's compliance with UN resolutions in the month since the United States and Britain at the last moment halted strikes against Iraq on 14 November. The advisers had read it and were worried. Saddam Hussein, the report said, was breaking his promises all over again.

Here, at a party that was meant to be off-duty time for everyone, emerged the first public indication that a new crisis with Iraq was about to erupt.

Wire reporters filed rapid stories signalling the imminent release of the report.

It was hours later, at a little after 9pm New York time, that the same correspondents saw the report first-hand and relayed to the world the extent of the bad news. To the fury of some of the Security Council's members, they did not see it until several minutes later.

Not everyone, however, was surprised by Mr Butler's damning conclusions. The US had been expecting as much for days. And for days it had been preparing what it considered could be the only reasonable response. President Bill Clinton, with or without his impeachment woes, would have to deliver on the pledge he had made on 14 November. Namely, if President Saddam was found to have fallen out of line with his obligations to Unscom once more, a military attack would have to be launched without warning.

Preparations had gone into high gear as early as Sunday night, when President Clinton was in Jerusalem pondering his public task of the following day - attending a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Gaza. At midnight, he held his first emergency meeting with his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, on what even by then seemed inevitable: the unleashing of cruise missiles.

Many in Mr Clinton's foreign affairs team had for weeks been telling him that his decision to call off the attacks in mid-November had been an error. Most frustrated among its members had been Vice-President Al Gore and the Defense Secretary, William Cohen. This time, the President knew, there could be no hesitation.

Consultations on priming US and British forces for action continued through Monday. Back in Washington, there was complete ignorance, however. All attention on that day was on the spectacle of the President juggling his joint tasks of achieving his peace mission in the Middle East and monitoring the momentum for his impeachment that seemed to be building by the hour.

The crunch came on Tuesday. When Mr Butler's report finally made its journey from Mr Annan's office to the Security Council and its contents were leaking into the news wires, Mr Clinton was on his flight for home. The flight should have been a window for him to relax after his gruelling three-day mission in the Middle East. But instead, at 39,000 feet, he was plunged into making final decisions in a new crisis about which the public back at home still had no inkling.

As the presidential jumbo jet powered through the stratosphere above southern Europe towards Washington, Mr Clinton called his advisers into his executive cabin. Around the small conference table, seated in cream leather chairs, the President, Mr Berger, and the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, pondered their choice. Joining the conversation by secure telephone link from Washington were Mr Gore, George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Mr Cohen. The President's wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, sat in another cabin, separated from the momentous discussion by a bulkhead.

All at the meeting were agreed. Mr Butler had confirmed what they had feared all along: President Saddam was once more in violation of his obligations to the UN.

Three hours into the flight, Mr Clinton placed a telephone call to 10 Downing Street to confer with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. And the decision was made. The President gave the order for his forces to prepare for an imminent bombardment of Iraq.

It was just before midnight on Tuesday in Washington when the clatter of helicopter blades announced the arrival of the President from Andrew's Air Force Base in Maryland, where minutes before his aircraft had landed. He did not go directly to bed, but stayed up until 1.30am to telephone congressional leaders to inform them of the plan.

On Wednesday morning,breakfast-time television shows broke the astonishing news. Just when all national attention had been focused on the President's domestic plight and the vote to impeach that everyone believed would happen on Thursday in the House of Representatives, a whole new drama had burst forth. An attack on Iraq, the on-air correspondents gasped, appeared to be imminent.

So began a truly remarkable day. In New York, the UN Security Council met on and off all Wednesday to agonise over a crisis it knew it could do nothing to avert. President Clinton held a 7.30am meeting with his security advisers in the White House situation room. Afterwards, he began preparing the address, which he knew he would be delivering on television that evening to inform the American people of the strike.

With every spare minute, Mr Clinton worked the phones talking to law- makers on Capitol Hill. His conversations directly reflected the dichotomy of his personal drama. He talked not just about Iraq but also about impeachment. In the early afternoon, he spent nearly an hour in the Oval Office with Amo Houghton, a Republican moderate from New York who was still planning to oppose impeachment.

President Clinton's last meeting with his security team happened at 1pm, Washington time. The final order to launch the attack was given. At 3.12pm, the first Tomahawk cruise missile took to the air, the first volley in Operation Desert Fox. Its travel time was calculated at one hour 54 minutes.

At 5.30pm, the President had been scheduled to meet another Republican wavering on impeachment, Christopher Shays of Connecticut. But by then, the first missiles were slamming into their targets in Baghdad. The meeting was postponed, just as on Capitol Hill a reluctant Republican House leadership was announcing that the vote, too, would be put off until after the military operation.

There remained only one task for the President - to deliver his address to the American people, which he did at 6pm, 24 hours after the first public indications of the crisis.