WASHINGTON, April 13 It was the morning of March 19 in the White House Situation Room, just hours before President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to get out of Iraq was to expire. President Bush had just polled his war council for any last-minute reservations about the war plan. Hearing none, he issued the "execute" command to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who saluted back via a flickering video screen from his headquarters in Qatar.
But in a White House that invariably seeks to project unwavering confidence and to portray the commander in chief as always resolute, what participants in the room that morning say they remember was the anxiety.
"You could have heard a pin drop in that room," said a senior administration official who was there. "It was silent for a couple minutes." Then the administration's warrior-turned-diplomat, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reached out to touch the president's hand. It was a gesture of support, but it was born, perhaps, of an understanding that the risks ahead were beyond the president's experience.
So much rested on the answer to the question that one of Mr. Bush's top national security aides had posed a few weeks before.
"How long will this go on?" he asked. "Three days, three weeks, three months, three years?" Duration, they all knew, would probably determine casualties, the risk of attacks using chemical or biological weapons, the stability of the Middle East, relations with allies. And, of course, the presidency of George W. Bush, who, some of his advisers acknowledged, was gambling his political future on a quick victory.
The past 25 days have been among the most stressful, emotional and turbulent of the second Bush White House, from the first, audacious attempt to kill Mr. Hussein to the toppling of his statue to the discovery today of seven prisoners of war. A White House that worships order had to react to the chaos of war and a script that kept changing. Sandstorms, unexpected resistance from the enemy and verbal grenades lobbed at the war plan by armchair generals at times forced the White House into a defensive crouch.
Although it was Mr. Bush's second war in two years, it was different in nearly every way from the first, in Afghanistan. This war involved hundreds of thousands of American troops. It was being fought over the objections of a vocal minority of Americans and many of the country's most steadfast allies. It had elements of a family psychodrama, with a second President Bush completing a job left unfinished by his father and trying to correct his father's mistakes.
Those 25 days have shown Mr. Bush to be short-tempered with criticism of the war plan in the days when the campaign did not appear to be going well, and downcast when confronted with American battlefield deaths and the capture of women as prisoners of war. With disgust, he told a member of his war council that the Iraqis "fight like terrorists."
But he has also shown patience in giving the plan a chance to work, much as he did in Afghanistan, and in his determination to leave battlefield tactics in the hands of his battlefield commander, General Franks.
As always, he was a creature of the routines that make his own world orderly, even as chaos streamed across the television screen. He stuck to his rituals: first briefings by 6 a.m., war council meetings, daily exercise, regular prayer, early bedtimes, weekends at Camp David. His travel was limited to military bases, where he could rally the troops and comfort their families, and to a trip to Northern Ireland as a payback to his most faithful foreign ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
By this past Wednesday, as Mr. Bush stepped out of a meeting in the Oval Office with the president of Slovakia and watched on television as celebrating Iraqis dragged Mr. Hussein's statue through the streets, the war routine seemed to break. "They got it down!" Mr. Bush exclaimed. One of the aides with him said, "He knew it wasn't the end, but he could finally see the beginning of the end."
By this afternoon, stepping out of his helicopter, Mr. Bush looked happier than he had in weeks. He had celebrated the discovery of the P.O.W.'s and delivered this message to the Iraqi people: "You're free! And freedom is beautiful."
Next week, Mr. Bush is to spend a long Easter holiday at his ranch in Texas, a sure sign that even if the war is not over, his most perilous period as commander in chief appears to be, at least for now.
The First Hours: A Plan Is Put in Motion, Quickly
The war plan that Mr. Bush approved in the situation room on the morning of March 19 remained intact for about six hours.
By early afternoon, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, had learned of a stunning tip from an Iraqi spy: Mr. Hussein was very likely to be in a bunker in southern Baghdad that night. Mr. Tenet raced to the Pentagon to discuss the information with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. General Franks, meanwhile, had received the same information from C.I.A. officers in the field, and ordered two F-117 stealth fighter-bombers aloft in case the president ordered a strike.
By 3:30 p.m., all three men had gathered in the Oval Office, along with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff. Mr. Bush listened impassively, advisers said, as the group discussed the source of the information and the risks of the operation. "It had huge possibilities," one of the participants in the conversation said. "You know, huge, positive outcomes." But they spent time, this participant said, discussing how an early strike would "affect the rest of what is planned" and the damage that could be done if the information was wrong.
For hours the group talked through the possibilities. "You know that the Iraqis might do the baby-milk factory thing again," the participant said, a reference to a famous moment in the 1991 gulf war when Western reporters were taken to see the injuries at a supposed civilian location. The president worried that there would be propaganda that "you struck women and children."
Ms. Rice, according to the official who was at the meeting, reminded the group that Iraqis "love to propagandize and lie about what's just taken place."
By 7:12 p.m., three minutes before what General Franks said was the deadline for making a decision, Mr. Bush determined it was worth the risk. "Let's go," he said, according to an aide. By 9:30 p.m. Washington time, the bunker had been bombed. Some 45 minutes later, Mr. Bush addressed the nation. "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance," he said in a four-minute speech from the Oval Office.
At least outwardly, Mr. Bush took it all in stride. Before his Oval Office address that Wednesday night, he gave a little pump of his fist and said "feel good" to an aide in the room. By 10:40 p.m., he was back in the White House residence watching television with his wife, Laura. At one point a crawl line on one of the cable news channels informed viewers that the president and first lady had gone to sleep the it's-all-under-control spin being dispensed downstairs in the press room.
"Whoops, we'd better go to bed," Mrs. Bush said, according to a friend who spoke to her afterward.
That Friday, March 21, just as his father had done on the first weekend of the first gulf war, Mr. Bush went to Camp David. He asked Roland W. Betts, his old fraternity rush chairman from Yale and one of his closest friends, to come along. The two spent hours that Saturday walking the trails, working out in the Camp David gym, watching the battle news on television and talking of little else but the war.
"He is just totally immersed," Mr. Betts said after coming off the mountain.
Lowering Expectations: A Rolling Start Turns Rough
But it turned out that Mr. Bush was entering the tactical and emotional low point of the war. He was awakened early in his cabin at Camp David that Sunday, March 22, and informed that American soldiers had apparently been captured in the Iraqi town of Nasiriya, and that one of them was a woman, Specialist Shoshana N. Johnson. "That troubled him," Mr. Betts said. Specialist Johnson was one of the P.O.W.'s found alive today.
The president returned to the White House that afternoon as scheduled, and in his first give-and-take with reporters since the start of the war he tried to lower expectations. "It is evident that it's going to take a while to achieve our objective, but we're on course, we're determined and we're making good progress," he said. But he seemed almost too emphatic, and inside the White House some aides were already concerned that the warm welcome Mr. Cheney had predicted for the troops in the south was not materializing.
By midweek, critics were beginning to question the relatively small size of the allied force in Iraq and to ask why the C.I.A. had not foreseen the fierce paramilitary resistance in the south. Mr. Bush's aides say the president never shared those doubts, even as he was pressing them incessantly for updates. When a reporter was visiting one top aide for 20 minutes that Tuesday, the president called twice pressing for new details.
On Wednesday, on his way to a speech at the headquarters of the United States Central Command in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Bush scratched from his remarks an assessment that the battle plan was ahead of schedule. Instead, he changed tones.
"The path we are taking is not easy, and it may be long," he said in the speech.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush seemed peevish during a news conference at Camp David with Mr. Blair, whose combination of passion and artful articulation dominated the event. At one point, Mr. Bush was reduced to standing by silently as Mr. Blair made an ardent speech about the success of the war. "I have nothing more to add to that," the president said.
By Friday, explosive comments made in Iraq by the commander of the Army forces in the Persian Gulf, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, were all over the front pages of the newspapers. "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against," General Wallace said, an assessment that was widely interpreted to be supportive of the criticism that Mr. Rumsfeld had ignored his generals' warnings that they did not have enough troops.
The White House went into public relations attack mode. A senior administration official described the president as "irritated" and said that Mr. Bush thought questions about whether the conflict was going more slowly than planned were "silly."
The administration was annoyed in part at the news media for filling empty air time with doubts "Imagine if F.D.R. had to put up with this between D-Day and the fall of Berlin," one snapped but also at retired officers who were offering critical assessments as part of the round-the-clock television coverage.
At 2 p.m. that Friday, March 28, Mr. Bush stepped out of the Oval Office and across the hall to the Roosevelt Room to meet with a group of veterans and everyone in the room knew that American forces were now heading toward Baghdad, which was defended by much-feared Iraqi units like the Medina division of the Republican Guard.
"I don't know when the Medina battle will begin; Tommy hasn't told me yet," Mr. Bush told the veterans, referring to General Franks.
The president's point, aides said, was that he was not going to micromanage the war the way Lyndon B. Johnson had during Vietnam and he was not going to bow to pressure to rewrite the plan every time it hit a bump.
"We don't second-guess out of the White House," Mr. Bush told the veterans. "We don't adjust the plan based on editorials." Then he headed for Camp David.
The Turnaround: Fighting Words and Good News
By Monday, Mr. Bush was fighting back. He traveled to Philadelphia and told cheering members of the Coast Guard that in just 11 days, "coalition forces have taken control of most of western and southern Iraq." "Day by day," he said, "we are moving closer to Baghdad. Day by day, we are moving closer to victory."
The next day, the turnaround began. Shortly before 5 p.m., Mr. Rumsfeld called Mr. Bush to inform him that Pfc. Jessica D. Lynch had been safely rescued from a hospital in Nasiriya. "That's great!" the president said, according to an aide. The news of the rescue saturated coverage the next day, and was treated at the White House as a harbinger that the terms of the conflict were in flux. The following day, April 3, American troops seized parts of Baghdad's international airport, an enormous strategic and psychological victory, putting the forces within sight of the capital. The rapid progress inspired a buoyant mood.
"Our task now is changing from managing irrational skepticism to managing irrational exuberance," a senior administration official said. That same day, an obviously more ebullient Mr. Bush traveled to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to tell 12,000 cheering marines that "a vise is closing" on Mr. Hussein.
He also met privately with the families of some of the marines who had died, hearing their stories, going through family pictures, talking to children whose fathers would never return. "It broke his heart," said one aide who was there. "It's the hardest moment of the job."
The next day, troops from the Army's Third Infantry Division were in control of the airport as Mr. Bush met in the Roosevelt Room with a dozen Iraqi exiles eager for a financial and political stake in a new Baghdad. Mr. Bush, his mood chipper, told the group that the United States was "slowly peeling" the hands of Saddam Hussein and his "thugs" off Iraqi throats, a participant in the meeting said.
After nearly an hour, the participant said, Mr. Bush concluded the meeting by saying, "Listen, I've got to hop," and then headed quickly for the door. But before leaving the room, he turned to the group and, unasked, gave what the visitors took to be a reference to when he thought the war would be over.
"Soon," he said, before disappearing down the hall.
Internal Debate: Battling Over Who Runs Iraq
The start of the war suspended several debates within the White House, notably the one between Mr. Powell and the administration's hawks over how to disarm Iraq without wreaking more harm than necessary on America's strained alliances.
But quickly, a new argument took its place. It was about postwar Iraq who should run it, who should determine which Iraqi leaders should emerge from the seed-corn democracy the United States intended to sow. "Same players, same departments, just a different version of the same fight," one senior White House official said.
The plan Mr. Bush approved before the war called for an interim authority that had a mix of all kinds of Iraqis the exiles and the "newly liberated." But in the first week of April Mr. Rumsfeld reopened the issue, writing a letter to Mr. Bush saying that he wanted to fly the exiles into the country and give them control of the south. That would give Pentagon favorites, including Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, a huge advantage in the eventual leadership of the country.
Mr. Powell was alarmed. "He saw this as an effort by the hawks to get their own guys on the ground where they could dominate events," one of Mr. Powell's senior aides said. The C.I.A., also suspicious of the exiles, had similar concerns, though it had ways including money and advice on the ground in Iraq to help its favorites.
The revelation of the Rumsfeld letter forced Ms. Rice to come into the White House press room on April 4 to describe what the new government would look like. "She had to set down the law for a lot of these guys," one senior official said. No sooner had she done so, though, than Mr. Chalabi was flown to southern Iraq with a group of lightly armed supporters, to the surprise of American diplomats. "This will get nastier," one senior diplomat predicted.
Meanwhile, a parallel fight broke out over how to describe the role of the United Nations. Ms. Rice said that only countries that had spilled "blood and treasure" would run Iraq. She said the United Nations would have a "major role," but one limited to humanitarian relief. "She was clearly speaking for the president," one official said. "The U.N. doesn't have the juice to get this done. And he's not about to hand the place over to French and Germans."
Yet Mr. Blair needed to show that he had a firm hand on the process. Meeting in Northern Ireland early last week, the president and the Prime Minister finally settled on the words "vital role" to describe the United Nations' future in Iraq although even Mr. Powell has said he does not know what that means.
Then and Now: The Father, the Son and the Legacy
In some important ways, Mr. Bush's conduct of the war over its first three weeks was about trying to correct mistakes made by his father during and after the first gulf war.
On the afternoon after the first strike against Mr. Hussein, Mr. Bush convened a cabinet meeting to set out the plan for the early stages of the war and to keep his domestic agenda alive. He warned against focusing so much on the war that issues like education, Medicare and above all the economy got lost or forgotten.
It has become a political cliché to say the current president is obsessed with avoiding the fate of his father, who was turned out of office after one term in part because he was perceived as ignoring the economy. But the story's familiarity does not make it any less compelling to this White House.
Throughout the war, the administration has not only tracked the economic fallout closely but has also tried to keep up the pressure on Congress to pass the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's economic plan, his $726 billion tax cut proposal. But with Mr. Bush consumed by the conflict in Iraq and Democrats hanging together despite pressure from the White House not to buck a wartime president, the administration lost a big round in Congress. It failed, for now at least, to stop the Senate from cutting his tax cut to $350 billion.
As he has tried to avoid the economic political trap, Mr. Bush has also openly distanced himself from his father's decision not to push harder for Mr. Hussein's overthrow after the 1991 gulf war. The president has shown a more hawkish, unilateralist tendency than his father ever did: the elder Bush wanted to restore world order, while the younger Bush wants to reorder the world.
But it was still remarkable last week, during a news conference with Mr. Blair, when Mr. Bush seemed to criticize his father's conduct in encouraging a rebellion against Mr. Hussein a dozen years ago and then failing to follow through with sustained support for the rebels.
The second Bush administration, he implied, could be trusted by the people of Iraq to finish the job in a way the first one could not be.
"These are people in the south of Iraq that had been betrayed, tortured, had been told they were going to be free, took a risk in the past and then were absolutely hammered by the Iraqi regime," Mr. Bush said. "They were skeptical, they were cynical, they were doubtful. Now they believe, they're beginning to understand we're real and true."
Even this afternoon Mr. Bush could not help reminding reporters that Iraq will not be rebuilt in a day.
"You know, it's amazing," he said. "The statue comes down on Wednesday and the headlines start to read, `Oh, there's disorder.' "
"Well, no kidding," he continued. "It is a situation that is chaotic because Saddam Hussein created the conditions for chaos. He created conditions of fear and hatred. And it's going to take a while to stabilize the country."
By THE NEW YORK TIMES